I'm the first to admit that I'm a deplorable glutton, but that's not the reason I love buffets. As a gastronaut, the all-you-can-eat world serves an important role in my life's work. There's no better way to mainline all a restaurant has to offer as from a steam table. This is especially true of eateries whose cuisines are less familiar to me.
At Afghan restaurants, for example, I've long been caught in a cycle of mantu and Kabuli pulao. Since I often visit restaurants only once, I end up stuck comparing the familiar to the familiar at different places. But I was able to sample close to 20 dishes yesterday at Afghan Express, which opened early this year at the 5600 Hillcroft St., the former home of Sagar Indian Cuisine.
I was the first to arrive, so each dish was freshly prepared and untouched by anyone but the chef. A man in traditional garb eagerly explained the dishes to me, just as he did to the mostly Indian clientele that trickled in after me. He wanted to make it clear that his food is organic and healthy, but more importantly that given its geography, it splits the difference between mild Persian food and spice-heavy Indian cuisine. "We don't use masalas," he repeated to each party. Instead, meats are rubbed with a garlicky house-blended spice mix. The result is as aromatic as the dishes of Iran but with a light smack of heat.
Curries or karais, especially follow that formula of gentle spice but full flavor. I couldn't help but scoop up some admirably al dente Kabuli pulao as a base for chickpea-filled chicken curry and lamb korma that was sweet with onions, but far less creamy than the desi version. My favorites on the meat plate (I divided my meal between the veg and non-veg dishes) were the potato and herb-stuffed bread known as bolani and the chapli kebab. I tend to order chunks of lamb or chicken rather than ground meat when choosing a kebab. But the ground patties, shaped to resemble the sandals from which they get their name, fairly burst with flavor, particularly the whole cardamom pods that popped with each bite.
The best vegetarian dishes, which I ate with a basket of fluffy, crisp-edged naan delivered to each table straight from the kitchen's tandoor, were served in tomato-based sauces. Tender okra was full of flavor, but slabs of eggplant, which broke into tiny pieces as I brought it from chafing dish to plate, was a celebration of acidic fruit.
I don't typically go to buffets looking forward to dessert, but in the case of Afghan Express, I should have. The pristine beauty above is ferni. It's a milk-based pudding flavored with rosewater, cardamom and pistachio and it is seriously wonderful. I was going to head to my beloved Kwality Ice Cream after lunch, but no longer had use for it (at least that day) after I tasted the silken, slightly bouncy dessert. I'm still no expert when it comes to Afghan cuisine, but thanks to Afghan Express, I'm several steps closer.