Blame Helmand. Were it not for that highly popular East Cambridge restaurant, I might not know how outstanding Afghan cooking could be.
For a decade, Helmand has been one of the few Boston-area restaurants, and perhaps the only one, serving traditional Afghan food, a cuisine rich with aromatic spices, fragrant rices, and tender grilled meats. And for a full decade, it has done so spectacularly well.
Now there's competition: Buzkashi, an Afghan restaurant near Porter Square whose menu and dinner-only hours are nearly identical to those of its cross-town rival. How much competition Buzkashi can offer is another matter. Based on my experience, I don't think Helmand has much to fear.
That's not to say Buzkashi doesn't have moments of glory. I'm still savoring the memory of the excellent, warm sesame seed flatbread, which tasted so fresh I suspect it had just finished baking. I'd make a return trip simply for another bite of the joltingly sweet kaddo ($5), a tender baby pumpkin spiked with sugar and topped with ground beef and yogurt-garlic sauce. And the green tea with cardamom is like edible perfume.
But the restaurant's quality is so uneven, its service so tepid, and its dishes so very disappointing, that its negative attributes far outweigh its positive ones. How can bread so exquisite one evening be stale another? Why was every meat entree we tried so uniformly parched and dry? What possessed the chef to send out a plate adorned with a single miniature carrot so shriveled it was white and scaly with age? And who decided to microwave the baklava until it became the texture of chewy waxed paper?
One of my meals at Buzkashi, which opened in April, was marked by such extreme highs and lows that a dinner companion suggested "A Tale of Two Courses" as a headline for this review. It captures our bafflement at how our appetizers could have been so fabulous while our entrees were such duds. The mediocrity of the desserts, meanwhile, made their caloric excess senseless enough that I skipped sweets entirely on my second visit. And believe me, when I turn down dessert, something is terribly wrong.
The dining room is certainly pretty. It seats 44, but feels smaller, and has wide wrap-around windows and buttery-yellow walls covered with Afghan knicknacks. The enlarged picture of the famous, and famously overexposed, National Geographic photo of a young Afghan refugee girl with piercing blue-green eyes is tacky, but other than that the decor is fine. The room's focal point is a large gas-fired grill for roasting skewered meat.
Buzkashi, by the way, takes its name from the national sport of Afghanistan, a polo-like game that dates to the days of Genghis Khan. Translated, it means "goat grabbing," and Buzkashi's owner, Javaid Aziz, who was born in Kashmir and raised in Pakistan, proudly declares it "the most exciting game in the world."
Appetizers and side dishes are where we struck gold. Sabzi ($5) is spinach sauteed with onions, tomatoes, pepper, garlic, and turmeric, a mixture that mellows out the bitterness of the greens. It's very good. So is banjan ($5), sauteed eggplant served nearly naked, save for garlic-yogurt sauce. Aushak, mantwo, and scallion bowlani ($5 each) are each made of a thin pasta wrapper filled with meat or veggies, then garnished with ground beef or yogurt. I recommend them all, although mantwo was our least favorite because the pasta was oddly tough. Good news: Some of these items, including sabzi and aushak, are available in entree portions, too.
Bendi ($5), sauteed okra seasoned with onions, tomatoes, black pepper, and garlic, was a bit mushy. Skip the shornakhod ($4), a bland, thoroughly unappetizing salad of boiled potatoes and chick peas atop mixed greens. It's supposedly dressed with cilantro vinaigrette dressing, but ours was fairly flavorless.
That's an unfortunate theme at Buzkashi -- menu descriptions that don't deliver what they promise. According to the menu, pallow, a type of rice, is seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seeds, and black pepper. We tasted none of those. Nor did there appear to be fresh tomatoes in our banjan, or carrots in our mantwo. Dwopiaza ($14) is described as leg of lamb, but what arrives is kebab meat. "Our cake" claims to contain cardamom, but we didn't detect any, and cardamom, even in minute amounts, isn't a taste you can miss.
Our sense of letdown continued with the entrees. Mourgh challow ($12), a chicken dish, comes with lively curry sauce, but the meat is very dry. Koufta challow ($13) comes with wonderful tomato sauce, but the filet mignon meatballs are so dehydrated they're a challenge to swallow. The qabelee ($14), a sweet mixture of pallow, raisins, and glazed julienned carrots, would be a pleasure to eat, except for the overcooked lamb shank. The $17 price tag on the combo kebab of lamb, beef, and chicken borders on criminal, since that mainly buys you a heap of rice and three small pieces of each meat.
Then there's gulpea and shalghum challow ($11), which is disgraceful. It's described as "cauliflower sauteed with tomato, onion, garlic, and fresh cilantro" and "turnips sauteed with fresh ginger, hot pepper, and sugar." We got a giant mound of rice, three florets of soggy, unseasoned, boiled cauliflower, and a pile of mushy, sickly sweet turnips. Tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro, ginger, and hot pepper were nowhere to be found. Aziz, asked later about the missing ingredients, said that, "at times, maybe when it gets really busy, the chef doesn't put them in." As for the boiled cauliflower, he said, "some people prefer it that way." So much for satisfying answers.
On a positive note, I really like gajar ka halwa ($4), a thick, chewy, sugary mash of grated carrots cooked with cardamom, almonds, pistachios, and honey. It's like a dessert version of Swiss muesli. Don't bother with the gummy, nuked baklava, which prompted this confession from a companion: "Gosh. I don't think I've ever had baklava as bad as that before in my life." Fereney ($4), a pudding similar to panna cotta, is passable. "Our Cake" ($6) is a confused hybrid of pound cake and angel food cake dotted with dried-out pineapple (and I highly doubt the original recipe from the Old Country called for frosting and maraschino cherries).
If Buzkashi were the only place in town to get Afghan eats, I might feel more charitable about its shortcomings. But for the time being, the competition blows it away.
ChoCho's 1815 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. 617-868-4246. Porter Exchange's food court is now home to the Boston area's first sundubu specialty restaurant. Order one of seven varieties of this chili-laced Korean stew, and you get a seafood broth bubbling with clouds of silky soft tofu (sundubu) -- a true delicacy -- and your choice of meats, seafood, or kimchee. Bento box-style meals and some interesting appetizers like super-chewy ddock bokki noodles round out the menu. (7/15/04, D.T.)
Croma 269 Newbury St., Boston, 617-247-3200. Plum real estate in Back Bay with a splendid patio area gives you good viewing along Boston's most stylish street. When the pizza crust is cooked on the bottom, the pie can be splendid. Some old-fashioned North End-style pastas, too. (7/8/04, S.J.)
Pha Le Steakhouse 699 Morrissey Blvd., Dorchester. 617-288-1777. Sushi has arrived in Dorchester, in the cavernous space once held by Linda Mae's. Gone are the breakfast specials and sandwiches of yore. In its Asian incarnation, the Pha Le Steakhouse offers Chinese and Japanese specials, and hopes to add Vietnamese for lunch. Sit at the sushi bar and watch the chef work his magic, or take a table or booth in one of the two dining rooms. The seafood is fresh; try the salted and pepper jumbo shrimp. (7/1/04, B.E.)
Big Fresh Cafe 341 Cochituate Road, Framingham. 508-879-7000. Whole foods, good grains, lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, and good sources of protein. Those, Karen and Kevin Masterson believe, are the secrets to good health. So that's what they serve at Big Fresh Cafe, their good-for-you, environmentally conscious restaurant, where the motto is "eat well, live well." (6/24/04, S.P.)