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[whitespace] Najib Naimi Afghan Attraction: Najib Naimi, who runs Kabul with brother Adib, pulled many recipes from their own mother's kitchen.

Photograph by Goerge Sakkestad

Kabul Rousers

A little corner of Afghanistan in the heart of Sunnyvale continues to delight the palate and the eye

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

THERE'S AN INSTINCT we all have that tells us when we're in the presence of greatness. It's hard to put into words, but we know it when it happens. Food is no exception. When it is both rare and delicious, it triggers a kind of lofty speculation about the true nature of cooking. Cooking that is not merely accomplished through skilled methods, but rather something that has been elevated to an art form in the purest sense. A meal that seems to lift the diner up is what I'm talking about, one that prepares us for endless flight when we're finished.

This kind of transcendent experience occurred for me on a recent Wednesday night at Kabul, an Afghan restaurant named after the capital of the ancient land between Iran and Pakistan. I found something akin to a spiritual awakening there. After we finished our meal that Wednesday, and strolled to the car with cumin and cardamom lingering in our nostrils, I knew I'd be back soon.

In fact, we returned a week later. Arriving 10 minutes before it opened, we waited outside like a couple of excited kids until we heard the slide of the dead bolt on the front door and were let inside. We weren't alone, either. There were others who arrived early and had to wait--eagerly, I might add--for a taste of Kabul's glorious cooking. Once inside and en route to our table, we passed tribal, handwoven carpets and tapestries with intricate designs and rich colors--the focal points of Kabul's elegant dining room. They work effectively to instill a feeling of authentic Afghan tradition in this peaceful space. Take a stroll around the room. Look closely at their designs, then at the dining room itself. Everything about this restaurant, from the flowers to the forks and knives, is laid out with meticulous care. Once again, we found ourselves swept away, just as we were on that first visit.

The people responsible for Kabul's continued success are two brothers, Najib and Adib Naimi, both devoted individuals with culinary skills that come not from textbooks or high-priced cooking academies, but from the humble kitchen of their own mother. It was she who introduced them to Afghanistan's native herbs and spices and taught them the family recipes that turn the act of eating into a ritual of joy and celebration. What the lucky diner gets here is soul food with a passion, with all the magical ingredients of the brothers' homeland.

Najib works the dining room. I watched him very carefully that second time around and observed an unassuming man--neatly dressed--whose eyes roamed from table to table, making sure all was in order and his guests were happy.

Adib is the chef--and what a chef he is. What he cooks is not complicated; in fact, it is very simple, but how he does it and how he presents each dish supports the argument that cooking at its best, in its many dimensions, is equal to a work of art. I believe that, visually, Adib looks at food as Ansel Adams looked at landscapes.

To prove the point, begin with an appetizer of Mantu ($3.50), as we did on both visits. But before digging in, take a second to look at this dish. Frame it as if it were in the lens of a camera. Silky dumplings filled with a mince of ground lamb, onion and spices (including garlic, cumin and cardamom) are veiled by an ethereal sauce of yogurt and mixed vegetables. Pakawra-E-Badenjan ($3.50) is another delicious composition of batter-dipped eggplant topped with more yogurt and tasty meat sauce. In both, colors were vibrant, as in a brilliant photograph, and flavors were subtle.

The entree specialties are the kebabs. But these are not the kebabs you can get at so many Middle Eastern fast food restaurants. At Kabul, the meats are market fresh and nothing less. I detected not a bit of gaminess in the chicken, not a hint of mutton in the lamb. Everything we sampled had clean flavors, unmarred by age or long hibernation in the freezer.

In order to fully appreciate Adib's kebabs, I recommend lamb (gousfand, $15.95) as well as chicken (murgh, $13.95) and salmon ($14.95), or better yet, order all three and request that they be served together on a platter for family-style service. This is the best way to taste and appreciate the diversity available here. All the meats, including the salmon (particularly good this time of year), are imbued with a light marinade that enhances natural flavors, bringing them to their full glory. For added spice, ask for a side of their pungent chutney made from jalapeño, walnut, coriander and vinegar.

We also sampled one of Adib's stews, Badenjan Challaw ($10.95), chunks of juicy, succulent beef simmered slowly with eggplant, tomato, onion and garlic. Delicious.

With meat, try some side dishes. I recommend either the sautéed pumpkin (kadu, $3.50), streaked with yogurt, or the sautéed spinach (sabsi, $3.25), cooked with onion and garlic. Both are served with challaw, a seasoned white rice breathing cumin and cinnamon. Both spices are widely used in this ethnic cookery, ones that activate the taste buds and clear the mind of all distractions. All of these dishes can be enjoyed as full vegetarian entrees for an additional price. For example, Sabsi as an entree is $8.25.

Don't miss dessert. If there's room, order a piece of Kabul's melt-in-your-mouth baklava or, better yet, a bowl of firnee ($3.25), a chilled cornstarch pudding dusted topside with minced pistachios. I couldn't put my spoon down until the bowl was clean.

Service goes perfectly in step with the elegance and pacing of this fine restaurant. On both recent visits, we were pampered and cared for by courteous individuals who managed our table with aplomb and efficiency.

Above all, Kabul is a labor of love for the Naimi brothers. They took a chance when they first opened back in the '80s. It was the first Afghan restaurant in this area, when finding Afghan cuisine was something one couldn't readily do. That's an accomplishment in and of itself. But Kabul is more than just the first of its kind, and more than just an excellent Afghan restaurant. It's a restaurant of rare delight, uplifting and unforgettable.

Address: 833 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408.245.4350
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2pm Mon-Fri; Dinner 5:30-10pm daily
Price Range: $8.95-$16.95
Cuisine: Afghan

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From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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