Delicate, elegant Afghani dishes at Ariana II
Afghanistan comes to London via Midtown Manhattan – and the results are stunning
It’s not often you find an offshoot of a Manhattan restaurant on Kilburn High Road. But Ariana II, not so much a sequel as transatlantic sibling, has been on this sootily urban Northwest London thoroughfare for over a decade. And you wouldn’t want it anywhere else.
Because this is as much local hero as it is Afghani stalwart, the sort of place that feeds expats, locals and novices (including me) with equal delight. I’m here on the recommendation of Hamid, a charming Afghani taxi driver, who hollered its praises. While giving me a briefly incisive lesson on the country’s geography: the crossroads of East and West, the heart of the ancient Silk Route, a place where all merge, meld and mingle. And topography: all fierce deserts, soaring, snow-capped peaks, lush, fertile plains and valleys. What the guidebooks would coyly call ‘a land of contrasts and extremes’. Add in invaders, from Macedonians and Mongols to Persians and British, plus a stirring melange of ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbek and many more), and you have one hell of a place to eat.
Inside, the lights are bright, the tables rammed, and the atmosphere thick enough to smear on fresh baked bread. Service is brisk but warm, and we leave ordering to our waitress. ‘Aushak,’ she smiles, putting down a huge plate of dumplings, stuffed with spiced leeks and lavished with a minced lamb sauce, heavy on the cumin, with chickpeas and lashings of yogurt. The pastry is delicate, the flavours subtle and elegant. My endless quest for new forms of dumpling has found a new star.
Hot, fluffy naan arrives with baudinjan buranee, a sort of soft aubergine mush with a hint of chilli and a pert acidity. Its bland appearance belies an altogether more thrilling appeal, while kadoo buranee, vivid orange, sees mashed pumpkin crisscrossed with more fresh yogurt. There’s lightness and litheness to both dishes, a subtle, delicate spicing that quietly thrills.
Kabuli palaw is basmati at its best, each glistening, luscious grain rolling lasciviously across the tongue. Studded with almonds, pistachios, raisins and shredded carrot, it’s at once softly Moghul and absolutely Afghanistan. And every bit the equal of the lamb: a soft, slow-cooked shank, then charred, juicy cubes. Another night, another revelation. Kabul comes to Kilburn. And I learn a little bit more.
Around £18 a head, 241 Kilburn High Road, London NW6; ariana2.uk
Drinks: Olly’s favourite English wine
The excellence of English fizz is well documented, but winemaking in the UK is risky. One of the world’s great sparkling wine producers, Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom in Sussex, put losses to frost at 80 per cent in 2020. The precious treasure that remains will be sought after. Still white, though, is in good supply and the quality is mind-blowing. Ever tasted the grape Bacchus? I love its elderflower scent and sharp citrus refreshment.
New Hall Bacchus 2018 (10.5%), £11.50, newhallwines.com. Best value British Bacchus. Scented and splendid, light and lovely – I adore it
Chalk Valley English White 2018 (11.5%), £7*, Morrisons. There’s 57 per cent Bacchus in this zesty blend – think frosty slices of finely sliced apple.
Hoffmann & Rathbone Bacchus 2019 (11.5%), £114 for 6, hoffmannandrathbonestore.co.uk. England meets Sancerre in this chiselled luxuriant liquid excellence. I’ve ordered 6.
Hidden Spring Bacchus Fumé 2019 (11%), £20, hiddenspring.co.uk. Exotic as elderflower, pristine as a peach and with delightful depth, it’s fab with fish pie.
Camel Valley Bacchus 2019 £13.95, (12.5%), The Wine Society. I buy this by the case – fragrant, refreshing, pristine. It’s one of my favourites – and my wine of the week.