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Have Faith

Spice of life: A meal at Kabul Kabob is a sensory delight.
Mark Manger

No doubt about it: I have the best job in the world.

Make that one of the best jobs in the world, because there are other good careers out there, and I don't want to step on any toes. International playboy, for a start. Professional coffee taster. Sole heir to some slightly embarrassing fortune -- like the only son of the guy who invented Depends -- and running with a gang of drunken, jet-trash socialites. That would be fun for a while. I also wouldn't mind being Colin Farrell for a couple of years and just sleazing around Hollywood smoking cigarettes and punching people, sticking my famous Irish member into any starlet who happened to cross my path, occasionally making a really bad action movie for a little walking-around money. That would be okay, too.

But failing that, reviewing restaurants is still a sweet gig. Dig the M.O.: Go out, eat like a pig, report back. For a guy like me -- a born critic, pissed off all the time, yet still oddly equipped with an unusually deep reservoir of love and respect for the obsessives of the world who do things better than I ever could -- it's perfect. And Denver is high on a short list of American cities ideally suited to a fella of my tastes and tempers. We've sloughed off the worst of that Midwest reputation for being a town rich only in steakhouses and all-you-can-eat RV cuisine. We have better Asian restaurants than New York (certainly in terms of Vietnamese, Thai and assorted Indochinese cuisines, arguably in Japanese, and we hold our own in Chinese and dim sum, being nudged out only by the overwhelming variety offered back East). We don't have to contend with California's hellish granola slingers or the retarded next-generation offspring of Chez Panisse. And on top of all that, Denver is rich -- flat-out loaded -- with odd, out-of-the-way, regionally specific eateries that really give a town depth of character. We can choose between Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine when we get a hunger for food from East Africa, and a whole sweep of places should we feel like North African. We have Europe covered, from Scandinavia to Switzerland. Central and South America are well represented. As for India, we can stand up to all comers and whup 'em good.

Denver even has Afghan food. And not just Afghan food, but Halal-certified (which means blessed or lawful according to Islamic rites, in much the same way as a kosher designation), strictly Muslim Afghan food that's served in a beautiful, if nearly invisible, little restaurant hidden away in a dead-end strip mall. Afghan food of a quality and consistency so unbelievable, so mind-blowing, that halfway through my first meal at Kabul Kabob -- while the appetizers are still on the table and before the entrees have even made an appearance -- I'm trying to talk myself down from making a truly ill-considered phone call and quitting the best job in the world. One of them, anyway.

Bad meals don't make me feel like this -- don't open this deep, sad pit of longing in the middle of my belly. Bad meals make me angry, make me redouble my resolve to do my job better. But great meals -- even great single dishes -- do the opposite. They remind me of how good food can be. And in the process, of course, how very awful food can be, making me recall every mediocre thing I've ever crammed down my gullet in my quest to eat everything.

So now, lost in bliss, sitting meditatively before a plain white plate laid with four slices of bulanee kachalu -- turnovers filled with a thin layer of potatoes and onions -- I'm ready to make the call, and it's not a bluff. In the small, simply appointed dining room of Kabul Kabob, I suffer my crisis of faith.

I take a bite. And another. And another, ripping through fresh, hot flatbread, crisp and golden and rich with clarified butter. Inside are sweet caramelized onions and mashed potatoes, smooth and gently flavored like a warm breeze over the spice market. I tell myself that this is it. I never want another bite of bad sesame chicken, never want to be the guinea pig for another burned-out chef's last doomed attempt at reinventing himself. I never want to grimace through the mangled flavors of another botched au poivre or fusion compote or soggy, nutless tiramisu. I want to forget the endemic sins of the restaurant industry and only follow my sense of what is good and right. I ask myself why, when such simple perfection as this plate of Afghan turnovers exists so close at hand, why I should ever eat anything else.

Before I can start dialing, an answer comes. Because bad meals make us appreciate the great ones. Because the Tao teaches us that without the night, we'd never know daylight was special. Or maybe that was Sesame Street. Whatever -- it's a good enough reason to set the phone aside for the moment, but I don't fool myself into thinking I've changed my mind. It's just that another course is coming and I need both hands to eat.  

For a basic understanding of Afghan cuisine, you have only to look at a map. It exists on the culinary spectrum precisely where Afghanistan lives geographically -- east of the Middle East, north of Northern India, flavored by the trickle-down influence of the old Soviet Union and coursing with the blood of the ancient spice traders who once walked and rode its length. Its tastes are layered by centuries of history, built not by slow growth and refinement, but in short, sharp punches. Invasion. Occupation. Cultures rising and falling.

And Kabul Kabob's menu reads like a history lesson taught in flavor. Indian and Middle Eastern spices mingle in lentil dal soup and hummus and shornakhud (whole chickpeas bathed in vinegar and a dozen rough herbs). There's Indian naan bread and Greek gyros; Mexican Fanta orange soda and dough like a yogurt lassi; mantou -- fat little dumplings like a cross between Nepalese momo and Russian pelmeni -- filled with ground beef and onions; thimbles of Turkish dessert coffee redolent with cinnamon and nutmeg; mahi straight from the boot of Italy, pan-fried in extra-virgin olive oil, topped with seasoned tomatoes and served over pale-yellow basmati rice.

And everything, absolutely everything, is beautiful. Riots of color, clouds of rich fragrance better and more tenacious than any perfume, textures balanced so that soft is embraced by crisp, cold beside hot. On other visits to Kabul Kabob -- more challenging ones when I am not alone, when the noise and clutter of friends and companions rob from me the simple grace of quiet thoughts -- I'll go deep into the menu, sampling Afghan salata (a cold salad of onions and parsley) and murgh-e-karaiey, with odd-sized chunks of marinated chicken, pan-fried and vaguely sweet, served over naan and mixed up with roasted pieces of bell pepper, chiles and onions like an Afghan fajita. There will be fantastic burani -- eggplant, fried until it is the consistency of baby food, then mashed with tomatoes, onions, peppers and a whole rack worth of spices I can't even guess at. The closest comparison I can make is to call it an eggplant tapenade, and it's served similarly, with triangles of grilled naan for dipping and a lace of sour cream around the edge of the dish that gives it a distinctively Russian feel. I'll chase my second plate of burani with quabuli palow, a brown-rice dish studded with sweet, baked raisins, strips of carrot and a delicate curry sauce poured over hunks of bony chicken.

But now I'm alone in the dining room, with its scuffed floors and regal burgundy wallpaper, in a corner seat by the windows that look out on nothing, playing with the lovely gold-trimmed silverware as the waiter -- who, like all of Kabul Kabob's staff, is friendly, truthful about what's good and bad on a given evening and seems honestly surprised when offered a compliment -- brings my main course. It's choppan, Afghanistan's most famous lamb kabob, because tonight I want to eat like a king, like some power-mad warlord of old, squatting in the desert surrounded by my wives, warriors and camels. I want the best -- or at least the most expensive -- thing in the house brought to me while I sip my Turkish coffee (which I, a heathen, ordered to be brought with my dinner, not after) and mull darkly over my future. And at Kabul Kabob, choppan is the most expensive thing on the menu. It tops everything else by at least four bucks. It's $14.99.

Warlord food comes cheap.

The choppan is wonderful. Huge pieces of lamb, big as a child's fist and heavily spiced with garlic, salt and whole cracked black peppercorns charred by open flames, come stacked along the edge of a plate piled with more basmati rice, more naan and large pieces of roasted red and green peppers. My best guess is that the lamb (slaughtered in accordance with Halal guidelines, which means by a Muslim cleric, and only after being blessed and sanctified more like a sacrifice offering than dinner) was a young one and that the meat was cut close to the body -- hips and hind legs, maybe even loin -- and then roasted on the bone. The flavor is incredibly rich, musky and powerful, full of blood, full of life. The heavy spices roughen and solidify the taste so that it is all bass, no top note.  

I eat with one hand, hunched over the plate, my eyes closed, transported. And I stay that way until another group of diners comes in. They are Muslim -- men in dark suits and beards, women veiled and wrapped in bright, flowing dresses like sarongs -- and are greeted at the door with smiles and raised voices, like friends of the house. The group is split up. The men take a table in the back of the dining room; the women fade off into a separate side room where they sit together, laughing and drinking tea. This separation is cultural, and nothing about it seems forced or imposed. (When my wife comes in for another meal, no one will suggest that she sit in another room.) And while I'm not a Muslim, nor a friend of the house, and don't claim to understand half of what goes on among those who are -- I was greeted the same way when I arrived: happily and warmly and well.

At the end of the night, after that first meal -- and after being told it would be wise to avoid dessert unless I'm in the mood for jhala, rice-milk pudding, which I'm not -- I look again at my phone. I think again about quitting, seeing some Byronic nobility in sparing myself the disappointments of a glutton's quest and instead living the fat life -- chasing only the bests of many tables, ignoring the worsts -- but decide against it. I'm too grumpy for that kind of life, too obsessed with the searching and not enough with the finding. The fact that it's a good meal that makes me second-guess my choice in careers is just the way I'm wired, and lucky for me, my food-world spirituality operates only on two settings: fanatical and off.

With this dinner done, the switch has flipped. Crisis over. Faith confirmed.

I tuck the phone into my jacket and walk out, already thinking about when I can return. Looking ahead now, and not at the past.


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