I was invited for a pre-dinner drinks party in St. John’s Wood and of course I had to plan some dinner for afterwards. St. John’s Wood and surroundings are far out of my culinary comfort zone, but compliant with my new quest to discover Neighbourhood Gems, I put an urgent recommendation request on twitter. The most intriguing of all suggestions came from the food blogger@ssusu_you (www.susaneatslondon.com) who urged me to try her local, Ariana II, for delicious and cheap Afghan cuisine.
Thus far it had never occurred to me to try Afghan cuisine (my mistake as I was about to learn), and have to admit that I didn’t know anything about the food originating in this culturally rich country. I have to say a big Thank You toÂ @ssusu_you for this recommendations, as Ariana II turned out to be one of the loveliest restaurant experiences I have had in a very long time.
Afghan cuisine, as I discovered, takes its influences from Indian and Pakistani food (there is naan on the menu, samosas, curries and tikka), Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours (hummous and grilled meats), Persian cuisine (variations of Pilaw rice) and even reminded a bit of South East Asia with steamed dumplings. The food is not spicy which I did not mind in this case, as the beautiful flavours, herbs and spices had room to develop and to be savoured. Compared to Indian food, the Afghan dishes we tried were surprisingly light and felt healthy and fresh. Vegetables feature heavily and so does rice.
Ariana II is a small and busy restaurant on Kilburn High Road, as there are many in this area. What however sets it apart already upon entering, is the friendliness of the staff. I have not felt that welcome in a restaurant for ages and I almost forgot how pleasant it is and how good for heart and soul when the waiters are genuinely nice and warm.
No alcohol is served at Ariana II, and BYO always helps to keep the bill down. I opted for the non-alcoholic option of green tea with cardamom which I had never tried before. I immediately bought a huge supply of it afterwards at one of the groceries on Kilburn High Road as it was so wonderfully comforting and very addictive. Not quite as good as wine, but almost!
Finally the starters arrived. Don’t be fooled by the rather similar experience ofÂ Aushak (4) and Kadoo Buranee (4) as these two dishes couldn’t have tasted more different.
Aushak are Afghan steamed dumplings, transparent dough sheets filled with a delicious combination of leek and spices. Theses were hidden underneath a beautifully balanced aromatic sauce of tomatoes, chick peas and meat and topped with creamy yoghurt. I loved it! Sweet, mild and fragrant was Kadoo Buranee, a pumpkin puree topped with yoghurt which was served with light and fluffy naan. This dish was almost a bit too mild for me, thank god we were offered a coriander/mint-heavy, not too spicy home-made chilli sauce that went a dream with the pumpkin puree.
Mind-blowing was the Kabuli Palow (9). Â The pilau rice was moist and sweet and savoury at the same time, perfected by raisins, almonds, pistachios and some grated orange stuff which I really couldn’t place at the time of eating. Reading about it later, I came to the conclusion that it must have been slivered sweet pickled carrot. Hidden under the generous helping of rice was a huge tender lamb shank. Less memorable but also very tasty was the Aubergine (7) which again came with a lot of rice. The portions are huge and we shared these 4 dishes between 3 people and were completely full after. Well, we had a little space to try the Afghan desserts (for the sake of research of course, nothing to do with our greediness…).
The surprisingly non-sweet was Firnee (3.5), resembling a light and airy custard, was refined with pistachios and almonds and a hint of cardamon. I enjoyed it, it was a good end to a delicious meal, but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to have it again.
I am a little bit in love with Ariana II and I am planning to be back many many times and, my dear readers, so should you!
By the way, I have some good news for oversea-foodies – Ariana (I) is located in New York, well worth a visit I’d say.
- Food: 8/10
- Ambiance: 6/10
- Service: 9/10
- Value for Money: 8/10
- Chances of Returning: 100%
- Verdict: Ariana II is a truly delightful little place with wonderful food. All go!