EXQUISITE Like much of the menu here, the rack of lamb — served on flatbread with sautéed eggplant and rice pilaf — is not to be missed.
This fine new Afghan restaurant makes it official: the odd-numbered side of Brighton Avenue between Harvard Avenue and Linden Street has so many good ethnic restaurants that you could eat out in a different country every week and never even cross the street.
On one block: Buk Kyung II, Le's, Carlo's, Jo-Jo Taipei, Shabu Toki, Punjabi Palace — am I going too fast for those of you taking notes? — and now, Ariana. Ariana means "the Aryan world" in the language Pashto, and was applied to several countries east of Persia making up a kind of greater Afghanistan. Now it is a name for the national airline, a TV network, and Afghan restaurants from California to Prague. I had pretty much given up on getting any more great Afghan restaurants here until the end of the war, when immigrants would again appear bearing fantastic ancient cuisine. Until then, we would get by on the Helmand for upscale, and maybe the odd rotisserie-chicken oasis up from New York City. Yet here is Ariana, a simple square room, nicely done with Helmand-esque food and grilled chicken at prices a graduate student can afford.
In fact, with some terrific sour accents worthy of Persian or Iraqi food (hey, that war's over, where are my restaurants?), Ariana may please some diners more than the beloved Helmand.
It all starts with fantastic flatbread, risen and wheaty with a little char as if baked intensely. This bread loves butter, and picks right up on a dip of cilantro chutney, cucumber raita, or a tasty hot-pepper sauce.
Helmand fans will go straight for the aushak ($5.95/appetizer; $11.95/vegetarian entrée, $12.95/with meat sauce). There are only two of the homemade leek raviolis on the appetizer portion, but two sauces — a minty yogurt sauce and a meat sauce any Italian grandmother would be proud of — and together they just make for some good eating.
But don't skip soup, especially the aush ($4.95), a large oblong bowl packed with noodles, carrots, snap beans, a bit of potato, and a refreshing sourness, possibly from dried lime or sumac. If you like eggplant, banjan ($5.95) is square slices like pages of a children's board-book, baked with cheese into something amazing. If you need more eggplant, a side dish of laghatac ($5.95) is more like ratatouille with a few Indian spices. Another side, kaddo ($5.95), is translated as pumpkin, but my guess would be a winter squash, and with yogurt it makes a real treat.
Entrées run to a lot of lamb, but I was delighted by murgh salata ($13.95), grilled marinated chicken breasts on salad. This is the chicken that took over Manhattan for a while, and not to be missed. Neither, of course, is the dopiaza ($13.95), here chunks of leg of lamb, marinated and grilled and then sautéed to an exquisite texture and flavor, with sides of yellow split-pea dal, plump marinated mushrooms, and grilled pepper and onion, not to mention rice pilaf delicately scented with cinnamon. Afghan rice seems to be ultra-long grain like Persian rice, but almost as fragrant as basmati. Or there's the rack of lamb, chopan ($18.95) — three baby chops, on flatbread, with laghatac sautéed eggplant and that rice pilaf.