For my 40th birthday, my friends at the time had made reservations for a return visit to Kabul House, which was in the Eastern part of Skokie at the time. Kabul House was the first restaurant that I had blogged when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup. After going down the list of alphabets, I had never returned to the top of the alphabet for a visit back to Kabul House or to any other Afghani restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. I had gone to an Italian restaurant and the web owner sent a beautiful response to my blog write-up of the restaurant and followed up with a recommendation for going to Kabul House. My response was that I had gone to Kabul House, only to discover that the original location I gone to had closed. I was rather disappointed because there were no other Afghani restaurants in the city and the experience was incredible the two times that I had gone. There was a bittersweet moment while having to update Chicago Alphabet Soup accordingly. Fast forward to 2013 and I finally made it a point to go to the new location.
At 4949 Oakton Street in Skokie, Illinois, is the new location for Kabul House. The section of town where it resides has a bit of a residential feel to it with a small booming business location. Only a few weeks ago I was in the area at a neighbouring Jamaican restaurant. But I had to revisit the place where it all began, albeit at a new locale, so that I could update Chicago Alphabet Soup with current foodtography. Spacious and light on the inside, I sat near a window so that I could have natural light for my compositions. These shots had to be special, although no more special than any other photos I have taken of food. Once the server came to table and warned me that there were some items not available because a private party the night before had wiped them out of some staple dishes that they serve, I relied on recommendations for what I should order. Knowing I was going to capture the impressions of the dishes, I wanted everything linearly so not all dishes came at once and the order was placed accordingly.
I started with an aush-rishta. This soup consisted of chickpeas, lentil, red kidney beans, and noodles with fenugreek, parsley, cilantro, and garlic. Immediately after the first slurp, I was reminded of harrira that I have had at Algerian cafes and at some other North African restaurants. There was absolutely nothing disappointing about the soup. And with the soft, homemade bread that came complimentary, I had no shame at all when I took pieces of the bread and sopped of the last of the gravy that was left when I had finished handling the soup. Instead of ordering a cold drink, I had cardamom tea that was bottomless. Being a tea snob, and by that I mean someone who drinks tea that is brewed from loose leaves as opposed to from tea bags, I can vouch that this tea is not from tea bags. You could taste the cardamom, not just a hint of it. And it went very, very well with the soup.
Where things kicked up a notch, not as though the soup had gotten me off to a bad start, I had mantoo. There are actually two versions of the mantoo — appetizer and entrée. I settled for the appetizer size. My diet is still that of a pescatarian primarily, but I did recall the dish the first time I had gone to Kabul House, which was before I had modified my diet. The mantoo was a plate of steamed dumplings that were filled with spiced ground beef, shredded carrots, and onions then topped with a tomato meat sauce and yogurt mint sauce. These were four dumplings that painted my face with a permanent smile. For my second appetizer, I had boranee baunjan, which was baby eggplant baked with fresh tomatoes and garlic and then topped with a yogurt-mint sauce. I kept thinking of the Indian dish baigan bharta, but the boranee baunjan has so much more bloom to the taste. Where most restaurants would be a bit heavy on salt, this was not the case with Kabul House. Now, one thing to note is that the two appetizers seemed to be a bit oily, not greasy, though. Although I have a high degree of food snobbery, I have no chef talents to be able to see if the oil was indeed grease. It was light, almost like olive oil. But some people run rampant in frenzies whenever their dishes seem to “run.” I got no indigestion, so I am going to say that the appetizers were heavy with olive oil. Then again, the hot tea works wonders with digestion.
There was one entrée that I wanted to attempt, given the soup and two filling appetizers that I had already tackled. I had a murgh chalau that came with complimentary rice, a spicy lentil sauce, and more bread. Again, there was what appeared to be a slight heavy hand with olive oil as part of the base, but not to point of making the dish unappetizing. Of all chicken dishes I love, Indian murgh makhani is my favourite. Well, it was my favourite until I had a murgh chalau at Kabul House. Sautéed chicken cooked with garlic and onions in a tomato base left me decisive about how much it is now my all-time favourite chicken dish. And American diners who think that Indian restaurants should have fried chicken tenders on their menu are saying that they know the best fried chicken shacks and barbecue chicken shanties that would make me change my mind — or make me become a staunch vegan. Nevertheless, I ate as much of the murgh chalau as I could and requested a to-go box because although I did not want the moment to end, I wanted to relish the flavours of the dish later. Getting the remainder of it for take-away meant I got to enjoy a mocha chocolate flourless cake. Sure there was baklava on the dessert menu. There was even honey cake, but my gums would still be throbbing from the sweetness. So I accepted the recommendation for the flourless cake and gobbled it up with the appreciation of a rabid prude. I can’t tell you how much I love chocolate and the mocha chocolate flourless cake will be one secret I keep from my high school sweetheart so that she does not use it against me.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Kabul House retained the authenticity in its food. Having recently gone to an Indian restaurant that had morphed into what looks like a Miami lounge and seemingly tempered its food for the American palates that frequent the area where the restaurant resides, I found a great deal of happiness in the spices, bursts of flavours, and genuine kick to the food at Kabul House. The location may have changed, but thank God the food did not. When I had mentioned that I had a few visits to the first location, the server seemed glad to know that Kabul House remained on my list of favourites such that I came back. He was outstanding with his recommendations and that was one of the things I remembered fondly at the old location. The prices are splendid even for a budget conscious person and unlike the ubiquitous bill of fare consisting of humus, couscous, and other Middle Eastern fare, there is the influence of flavours coming in from Pakistan, Turkey, and quite possibly from India that will have me rushing up to Skokie now and then for some of the best Afghani cuisine outside of the country. I shall be satisfied. You will too when you get your feet under a table at Kabul House.