Friday, September 18, 2009

Balkh Shish Kabab House - Hidden, Unassuming Greatness

Balkh Shish Kabab House - 23-10 31st Street, Astoria 11105

N/W Train to Ditmars Blvd (last stop)

Meg sold me on this place when she described their fried pumpkin turnovers. I couldn't wait to try it, and was surprised that I live so close to Balkh but have failed to notice it before. It's one of those quiet, unassuming places that's remarkably good--and after you try it, you're going to want to return.

Like most small, ethnic restaurants, Balkh doesn't have much of an atmosphere. The long, narrow dining room extends to the far back with plenty of tables to choose from. We sat in the back so we could observe everything.

I didn't notice any music but liked the Middle Eastern mural that occupies one of the walls. The grill is located in the front and all food preparation takes place there. I was confused by this and thought that the kitchen would be in the back, but the action takes place in front where everyone could see.

Balkh serves Afghan cuisine - something I'm not familiar with, but am open to. They incorporate a lot of grilled, shish kabab-style meat, especially lamb. Side dishes tend to be rice and veggies rather than potatoes or even bread - although they do provide you with a basket of traditional Afghan flat bread.

Bolanee Kadu (Fried turnovers with pumpkin) - This is the dish that Meg initially told me about and naturally, I had to try it. It surpassed my expectations with its crispy, buttery dough stuffed with small bits of sweet pumpkin. I loved that it incorporated a mix of sweet and savory, coupled with a cooling mint, yogurt sauce. Every bite sent my senses in different, pleasing directions - there was hot and cold, sweet and salty, buttery and flaky.

Aushack (Dumplings filled with scallions) - Based on some of the reviews I read, this was a popular choice with diners and it also spoke to us. The dumplings were silky smooth and very thin - almost translucent that you could see the rich green scallion mixture inside. Once we punctured its perfect exterior, we devoured the earthy scallion/herb mixture, which was mild yet perfectly seasoned. It had a light tomato based broth on top and a refreshing yogurt sauce, which introduced yet another texture.

Sabzi (Spinach with lamb, onion and tomato) - We wanted some greens with our meal and ordered this interesting spinach side dish. It was wonderfully soft and fragrant from the bits of lamb and spices. And just like with the other two dishes above, a yogurt based sauce was a nice accompaniment. Every time I put it on top of the spinach, it reminded me of a luxurious creamed spinach that I eat on special occasions.

Tikka Kabab
(Lamb) - A simple kabab platter with speared chunks of lamb in Balkh's "special marination" was quite the show-stopper. While the consistency of the lamb was on the firmer side, I didn't mind because the flavor was as intense and aromatic as can be. I loved that it had a slight kick from Middle Eastern spices, and the rice was so deeply flavored by the lamb that you hardly needed the meat to enjoy it. This dish was a great value, as it comes with a heaping pile of rice and veggies. Both Meg and I couldn't finish it - so imagine just how full it would make one person!

Desserts - Despite our enormous gorge-fest, we saved room for not one but two desserts. The selection is limited so we decided to try both (and the only) options on the dessert menu - firny (an Afghan pistachio pudding) and the baklava. Both were excellent, especially the flaky, nutty baklava, which came in a very generous portion.

The non-traditional pudding was a great way to soothe the palate after the plethora of spices and textures that hit it during the appetizer and entree courses. The pudding was more of a cool custard, lightly flavored with pistachios and condensed milk. I tasted a hint of rose water, which was a nice surprise that luxuriously lingered on your tongue.

Service and Cost:
Our waiter was nice, welcoming and hospitable. He was courteous in asking when we wanted everything to be served (together or separately). I liked that he wasn't afraid to tell us how to correctly pronounce everything, and he came by periodically to check on us, making sure that all was OK. I appreciated the gesture and felt cared for, but not smothered. When it was time to pay, we didn't feel the least bit rushed - everything was laid-back and relaxed.

The costs are super inexpensive and so worth it for a fantastic, authentic meal. I'd recommend it to everyone on a budget and to anyone who wants to get their money's worth--and then some.

Appetizers: $3-6
Entrees: $9-$15
Dessert: $2-$3

3 Mmmms

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