Saturday night we went to Faryab in Bethesda. Located amidst many excellent sounding/smelling dining options on Cordell Avenue, Faryab dishes up humble yet rich Afghan dishes without fanfare or frolic. The restaurant sits in a quiet, unassuming store front adjacent to a cigar shop. In the warmer months they have an outdoor patio. There is a nearby parking garage, free on most evenings and weekends.
I sampled quite a few appetizers and dishes from around the table:
Bulanee ($7) are turnovers stuffed with spiced scallions and herbs, and one of two vegetarian options on the appetizer menu. After a few nibbles, found these to be very light and refreshing and with a kick of pepper.
Badenjan Goushti ($21) is seasoned lamb, braised, topped with eggplant, onions, and tomato, baked, served with basmati rice. The lamb itself was very tender, falling apart in your mouth as if it were chipped beef. Not a very gamey cut of lamb; lamb lovers probably won’t care for it; lamb haters probably won’t mind it. I expected a little more flavor from the sauce, the tomato stood out among all the other ingredients.
Sabsi ($7) is fresh spinach cooked with onions and garlic. Shredded super-fine but not at all watery, my side order was sweet to the taste as if they’d used sugar-injected sweet onions. By comparison the spinach served with the lamb had a different flavor entirely; both were good, but I preferred the sweet.
Shalgham Goushti ($21) is seasoned lamb, braised, topped with tender, sweet and spicy turnips, served with basmati rice. I only got a little taste of the Shalgham dish, since it wasn’t mine; my intention was to experience a turnip for the first time, so I can’t speak to the lamb, but I was amazed by the sauce. More on this shortly…
If you take away nothing else from my experience, read the next paragraph carefully.
If you like spiced dishes, you must go to Faryab and order something with Shalgham. The sweet and spicy sauce used was probably one of the best spiced flavors I’ve ever tasted. Ever. It’s instantly sweet to the taste, and reminded me slightly of cinnamon. But then a unknown blend of spice migrates to the back of your tongue and explodes. Like a pepper might, except that it wasn’t particularly peppery. It packs a punch that will catch you off-guard, but it’s not a sweat-inducing heat. Less of a heat than a shock to the taste buds. I’ve never tasted anything like it, nor could I readily identical any of the flavors nor any of the ingredients used. That’s rare for me. Whatever is it in, it’s finely ground and not visible to the naked eye. And it’s delicious.
Enough about that, now. Overall, the fare was pretty simple and I can’t say there was a bad dish among those I tried.
There are some weird price points, where I can’t reconcile whether the appetizers were priced high or the entrees were priced low. Consider Mantu; perfectly steamed dumplings filled with a rich mixture of ground beef and onions, topped with a slightly tangy yogurt and a hearty meat sauce. If you order the appetizer ($7) you receive four dumplings. If you order the entree ($19) you receive eight, which means you’re paying $5 for an iceberg lettuce salad and one or two piece of bread.
I thought that portions were a tad small, given the cost. When in Bethesda, however…
It wouldn’t be exactly fair to compare the flavors of Faryab to that of Helmand (in Baltimore), since both feature cuisine from their respective provinces of origin (both of which they are named after). But there are some differences worth noting. The bread at Faryab was thick and heavy, very unlike the naan-like pita at Helmand. The sauces at Faryab were more tomato and vegetable based, where Helmand seems to be more broth-based. For what you pay at Faryab, you’d expect a little more ambiance; both have tablecloths and while linens, but Helmand feels a little more upscale.