Don't neglect beef, which marinates so well, as in tikka kabob ($14.95), three fat fingers of wonderfully tender meat, pillow rice, yellow dal, and grilled onion and green pepper.
The drink of sophisticated Afghan restaurants is wine. Ariana has the rare list of bottles all in the $20s, with house cabernet or chardonnay at $6 a glass ($10/half-carafe; $17/carafe). Both are quite serviceable, the cabernet with some aroma and body, the chardonnay quite clean and dry with simple green apple aromatics. Water in blue goblets (like at the old Ritz) is refilled often. Green tea with cardamom ($2) is too weak; black tea with cardamom ($2) is too strong, although both are scented with the right spice.
Afghan desserts are surprisingly good, possibly because the restaurant uses real American ice cream as the basis for sheerehk ($4.94), a small sundae with pistachio, a hint of cardamom, and a fruit sauce. Ariana's sheerberaing ($4) is about as good as you can make a rice pudding without custard, with just a few raisins and a dusting of pistachio, but firm semi-sweet rice.
The local favorite is feereny ($4.95) a kind of Bavarian cream studded with near-ripe berries and fruit. The Afghan idea of bucklawa ($4.95) looks like the Greek or Turkish equivalent, but is spicier, leans more on pistachios than walnuts, and is much denser.
The simple square room has ocher walls and photos of tribal life, with the classic, arresting National Geographic image of "Afghan Girl," eventually identified as Sharbat Gula. I'm not sure if what we see is such a large enlargement that it begins to blur, or if someone has painted a near-perfect copy of the famous photo. Buckhara-pattern rugs add a sense of luxury, but this is the Helmand on the cheaper.
Service on two early evening visits was very good, even with the restaurant full. Tables are close together, but this may get you some recommendations from the people nearby, or at least a good peek at what smells so good. There are no TVs, but there is background music, somewhat busy strings and small percussion. If hip-hop has reached Afghanistan, the restaurateurs are not going to rub our noses in it. At one time, Afghanistan was famous for elaborately painted trucks. Maybe the Taliban banned them, or maybe the owners of Ariana are intent upon nostalgia for a time even more simple than the painted-truck era.
Ariana | 129 Brighton Avenue, Allston | 617.208.8072 or arianarestaurantboston.com | Open Sunday–Thursday, 5–10 PM; Friday and Saturday, 5–11 PM | DC, DI, MC, VI | Beer and Wine | No Valet Parking | Sidewalk Level Access
Robert Nadeau can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.