What's Afghan cuisine? It would be too simple to say it's a cross between the cuisines of Afghanistan's neighbors, but that gives you an idea. Like Iran, Afghanistan cooks a lot of hearty soups, rice casseroles and kebabs. It shows the same taste in spices and rich sauces as India.
What else is Afghan Cuisine? A dark, modestly clubby Encino restaurant full of roughly hewn wooden tables. Cuisine isn't all that's going on here, either. It has a stage for live entertainment.
The starting point of a meal is puffy Afghani flatbread with a delicious fresh chutney made from mint, cilantro, walnuts and garlic. You could follow that with barteh, a cousin (or closer relative) of the Indian bharta: an eggplant puree with an intense garlicky kick. Just a smidgen overwhelms a small square of the bread.
Aushak are crescent-shaped ravioli filled with leeks and blanketed with three rich sauces: tomato, mint and yogurt. Mantu is a characteristically Central Asian dumpling filled with chopped beef. Either will be a giant platter of at least a dozen dumplings.
Potato bolani is a crepe-like flatbread fried to a golden crunch with a samosa-like filling of spiced potatoes, onions and garlic. The leek bolani is good, too, but bear in mind that it has the same filling as aushak.
Afghan soup is the perfect antidote to a chilly evening. It's a cilantro-scented soup stocked with noodles, garbanzos, kidney beans and shredded turkey. I must say the topping of whey, fresh mint and olive oil is rather oily. Altogether, if I have one complaint about this place, it's the rather exuberant way it has with oil.
Among rice dishes, try qabuli polo: basmati rice hiding either a tender lamb shank or half a chicken and topped with currants, pine nuts and carrot shreds. One thing to avoid, though, is the unpleasantly oily okra stew made with gristly chunks of veal and an insipid tomato sauce. The eggplant stew, made with yellow split peas, diced beef and sliced eggplant, isn't a whole lot better.
The kebabs are essentially what you'd get in an Iranian restaurant, complete with the mounds of saffron-topped basmati rice. Chicken barg (charbroiled pieces of chicken breast) and chenjeh (charbroiled lamb) are both fine, as is chapli kebab, which is fried beef patties redolent of cumin.
If you're having kebabs, order a side dish of green olives, which come in spicy brine. They're a whole lot less challenging than what the menu calls "mixed pickled garden vegetables," maybe the sourest dish ever to surface in the Valley.
Afghan Cuisine, 17970 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Sunday. Closed Monday. Street parking. Beer and wine. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $23-$45. Suggested dishes: barteh, $4.95; aushak, $9.95; mantu, $9.95; chenjeh, $9.95. Call (818) 343-1222.