Cafe Society

Have Faith

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan