Cafe Kabul is the sort of place one wishes well. Owner Noorgul Dada graduated from Ohio State with an engineering degree, but decided to open Columbus’s first Afghan restaurant. Located in the University City Center shopping strip on Olentangy River Road, the site was previously a fast-food operation. The space is light, bright and clean, with pumpkin-orange walls and somewhat Spartan tables and booths. Decorations include an Afghan dress and some photos. Orders are made at the counter (the menu is on a wall, complete with photos) and courteous staff members bring the food to the table.
There were two appetizers. Veggie pakora was pleasant enough and accompanied by an equally pleasant greenish dip. The hummus, however, was outstanding, among the best in town: creamy and well-flavored, with a fine balance of chickpeas, garlic and tahini. The lovely dish was topped with a pale green olive oil and a splash of red spice that I believe was, or at least included, sumac. The thicker-than-pita and slightly spongy Afghan bread was served warm from the oven.
Entrees came with a generous portion of slightly yellow long grain rice and a simple salad of lettuce and tomatoes dressed with what tasted like bottled vinaigrette. The difference was the meat chosen. To my taste, the least interesting were the chicken breast kebab and the tikka kebab (leg of lamb cubes). Both were slightly overcooked and hence a bit dry. Seekh kebab, available with ground chicken or ground beef, wasn’t as dry and profited from a distinctive and delicious flavor.
Peshawari chaplee kebab provided what looked like three plumpish burgers, deliciously flavored with “our seasoning,” but somewhat loose in texture, perhaps from undercooking. There were two pallow dishes, built around bone-in lamb pieces or chicken legs. These were dressed with thin strips of marinated cooked carrots and raisins. While the lamb version was a bit chewy, the chicken leg version was marvelously tender. Tandoori chicken offered three of those succulent legs roasted in their seasoning—quite a satisfying dish.
Several side dishes are worth noting. The rich and tasty sabsi was puréed spinach with onion and garlic. The tender, succulent and delicious buranee bonjon was made of eggplant sautéed just right and mixed with an excellent homemade yogurt. The latter was available as a side dish.
I never got around to sampling the curly French fries or the hamburger. But if you drag your picky kids here, they will find something to eat.
Beverages were mostly familiar fountain drinks, but there was a pleasantly astringent and tasty yogurt drink made with water, salt and mint.
One hopes the uneven cooking will sort itself out, and the cuisine was interesting enough that it would be nice to see the menu expand over time.
I wish them well.
2831 Olentangy River Rd.
Atmosphere: Bright and welcoming.
Recommended dishes: Hummus, tandoori chicken, chicken pallow, buranee bonjon, sabsi, homemade yogurt, yogurt drink.
Price range: Appetizers $2.99-$3.29; entrees $8.99-$10.99; value meals $5.49-$7.49; side dishes $1.49-$4.99; sandwiches $2.99-$4.99; salads $3.49-$5.99.
Hours: Monday through Wednesday 11 am to 9 pm, Thursday and Friday till 10 pm, Saturday noon to 10 pm; closed Sunday.
Service: Cheerful and friendly counter service; food does not come fast.
Rating: ** 1⁄2