Some people will love the front tables at Bamiyan because they smack of authenticity, low to the ground and covered as they are in tapestries and embroidered pillows. Some people will enjoy the dog's eye view: the sunken tables put diners at just about Malamute- or German shepherd-level along Third Avenue. And some people will love that the owners here, in contrast to almost everywhere else, actually want you to take your shoes off. These days New York offers plenty of options for Afghan cuisine, but Bamiyan, in Kips Bay, is among the oldest and best.
Fesenjan ($8.95), our first appetizer, featured chicken chunks tossed in a brown gravy made from walnuts and pomegranate juice. Of all the dishes we ate during dinner, this one gave the greatest sense of terroir, connoting the place from which the recipe had traveled. The menu promised "sweet and sour," but "sweet and earthy" might have been more apt. It tasted of trees growing amidst scrubs, of soil and work.
We also tried the humble sambusa ($5.95), a pocket of dough stuffed with ground beef and peas, then fried. These had good chew, especially when dipped into the accompanying yogurt-mint sauce. But mostly we wanted to keep dipping the airy Afghan bread, surprisingly similar in consistency to focaccia, into the fesenjan.
As our main we got the large order of aushak ($13.95), scallion dumplings buried in tomato-and-yogurt sauce. The dumplings' thin skein gave the dinner another Italian note—this time, by echoing ravioli. Like the best version of that pasta, this one firmly balanced stuffee and stuffer. If the yogurt sauce sometimes looked like snow, then the fresh crunch of the scallions sometimes conjured an emergent spring.
We liked the quorma chalow with lamb ($16.95) a lot, a lamb stew served with rice. In addition to tender meat, the stew had onions, potatoes, lentils, and carrots, and the rice was fluffy. Here's an entree that was more impressive than the sum of its parts, a long time of simmering yielding a robust richness.
Our small pot of shir-chay ($4.95) served five or six shot glasses of creamy tea, flavored with rose petals and cardamon. Alas, our meal ended on a low note, with an order of goosh-e fil ($3.95). Known as "elephant's ear," dough had been shaped into a puckered triangle, fried, and coated with honey. The crisp gets so thick that the dessert comes with a steak knife. All we tasted was honey-flavored grease. Maybe we'd have been better off ending the meal with a hookah ($20 for regular flavors like grape or $30 for a custom blend).
It's a testament to New York 's broad-mindedness that Bamiyan has not only stayed in business but flourished since opening on Third Avenue in 1993. Go early, or make a reservation, to snag one of the traditional tables. (Remember to wear cute socks.) With its evocative cooking and decor, Bamiyan is best for: a travelers' date.