FOOD: Panjshir-A Blast from the Past

Falls Church Times Staff

March 12, 2010

There was a time when Panjshir, the city’s long-standing Afghan restaurant, was considered the cream of the crop in the region for its genre.  It was written up in magazines and praised for its traditional, well-prepared dishes.

In the last five years that’s changed.

Food critics and foodie fanatics have moved on.  A host of newer places, including the nearby Bamian in Falls Church, are the current darlings in a growing Afghan restaurant circuit.  There is a perception out there that Panjshir is stuck in the past—that it caters to an older clientele of regulars with predictable, mildly seasoned food.

This week I embarked on a mission to the 25 year-old institution to see what the story was.  Even though I’d been to the restaurant once before, it was so long ago that it felt like my first time there.

I walked into a fancy dining room half-filled with white-haired grannies; a scene that did not, in all honesty, fill me with confidence.  I know there are ethnic restaurants that are patronized primarily by Westerners and still have good food, but those are few and far between.   Generally I prefer to eat at a place where there are some people dining there from the same ethnic background as the cuisine being served.  It reassures me that I’m getting something reasonably close to the real McCoy.  Nevertheless, I kept an open mind.  Good food can come from anywhere.

I sat down with a couple of friends with plans to order a range of dishes, a few of which I would be tasting for the first time.  Truth be told, I’ve only eaten Afghan food a handful of times.  There are still a ton of dishes I want to explore from the landlocked Central Asian nation.

From what I’ve had so far I’d say Afghan food is most similar to Persian food, which I eat often and love.   Both cuisines work wonders with slowly stewed fruits and vegetables, rice, and charcoal-charred meat kabobs.  They’re neighbors, so that makes sense.  But Afghan cooks also employ a more liberal use of Indian spices—especially cardamom, black pepper and coriander—and incorporate some Turkish-influenced dumpling-like dishes, most notably the meat-filled pillows called mantu (Panjshir calls them muntoo). Like most surrounding countries, bread and yogurt also play integral roles at the table.

I’ve always wanted to try aushak, the scallion-filled cousin of the aforementioned mantu, so we started off with a small order of those.  The little dumplings were drowned in yogurt and a mild tomato-meat sauce and served tepid.  Not good.  A bigger problem was the pasta itself, which was some of the chewiest and toughest I’ve ever had.  The only highlight was the generous sprinkling of dried mint over top of it all, which contributed a unique and welcome savory flavor.  I’m pretty convinced this was a poor rendition of what could be a wonderful dish.

The bulanee kachalu, a beef-and-potato stuffed fried pastry, was a little better.  I especially liked its accompanying cilantro and chili chutney, which had a potent kick of vinegar.  But the filling was skimpy and the flavor pretty bland without the sauce.  Order it and you’re likely to be satisfied but not impressed.

You know you've got to be doing something right to be in business for 25 years.

After the appetizers we were all given a complimentary salad of iceberg lettuce with a tart, mustardy dressing—a gesture I remember from the last time I ate there.  Honestly, I’d prefer a big basket of bread with some of that chutney to start the meal, but the salad was pretty tasty and free, so I can’t complain.

For the main meal we split a veggie combo and a meat combo.  Thankfully, there was a lot of good eatin’ on these two plates.

Both the boneless chicken cubes and lamb chops on the mixed skewers were excellent.  The former were succulent and charred; the latter smoky, well-seasoned, and a joy to gnaw on.  Only the cubes of beef left a little to be desired, as they were overcooked.  I’d go so far as to say that the lamb and chicken rank number one and two on the hierarchy of kabobs in the City of Falls Church.  They were that good.

Unfortunately, the “saffron rice” that shared the plate with the kabobs couldn’t stand up to them.  It was dry, bland, and a poor excuse for a starchy side.  This was particularly disappointing because I know Afghan cooks, much like their Persian neighbors, pride themselves in making some of the most fragrant, delicious long-grain rice dishes around.  It is the countries’ staple grain.  If I went again I’d order the lamb chops or chicken and try to talk the waiter into subbing out my rice for something else—perhaps some bread or a vegetable side dish.

The so-called “spinach rice” that came with the veggie combo was even worse than the “saffron rice,” but everything else on the plate was tasty and refreshingly different.  We opted for slow-cooked pumpkin, stewed apples with split peas, and sautéed eggplant, all three of which were smothered in typical Afghan fashion with tangy yogurt and a sweet tomato sauce.  Both the pumpkin and the apples had an almost dessert-like sweetness that could turn off people without a sweet tooth, but I liked them, especially with the slightly tart yogurt.  The eggplant was tender as can be and savory.

When all the food was cleared we agreed that some of it was downright delicious and definitely worthy of a return trip.  Aside from the so-so appetizers and inexcusably bad rice the only other downside was the price.  We spent 20 bucks a person but could have ordered twice as much food.  In fact, we were so hungry after we left that we went down the street and had a second, smaller dinner at La Caraquena.  I understand that Panjshir is locally owned and probably barely turns a profit with all the competition in the area.  But I’d love it if the prices were a tad cheaper and the portions a tad bigger.  That sort of generosity is what keeps me coming back.  For now, I think I’ll only be coming back for lunch (when many dishes are a few bucks cheaper) or when someone else is paying the bill.

So is Panjshir the stale, stuck-in-the-90s restaurant that food folks “in the know” make it out to be?  Perhaps.  There are clearly some dishes that aren’t what they could or should be.  And there’s that free bowl of iceberg lettuce that is “so ten years ago.”  But after my recent trip it’s clear to me that there are a few things this restaurant does very well—and probably a number of other good standbys I didn’t get a chance to try.

All in all, Panjshir isn’t as affordable or well-rounded as I wish it was, but I like it.  Once you take a bite of those lamb chops it’s pretty hard not to.

Panjshir is located on 924 W Broad St, Falls Church City, VA, 22046. (703)-536-4566.  (Its sister restaurant, Panjshir II, is on 224 Maple Ave E., Vienna, VA, 22180.  (703) 281-4183.)

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By Jimmy Scarano
March 11, 2010 


3 Responses to “FOOD: Panjshir-A Blast from the Past”

  1. Laurel (Falls Church) on March 12th, 2010 3:05 pm

    Thanks for another excellent review, Jimmy.

    I heard about Panjshir on the bus last year and visited it with great anticipation for the pumpkin dish. Unfortunately, my experience was much like yours: mostly bland food, served mostly tepid, leaving me mostly unsatisfied. In the following months, I returned a few times trying different appetizers and entrees, never to be impressed.

    I finally gave up. Like you, I’m a big fan of locally-owned and -operated businesses and I do what I can to patronize and publicize the worthy ones. I’d love to be able to say differently, but unfortunately Panjshir doesn’t offer very good flavor or value at this time. Since I’m especially eager to find more non-Asian and non-Latin dining options, my experience at Panjshir was a disappointment.

  2. Scott Taylor on March 13th, 2010 5:47 pm

    Outside its home country, the best Afghan food I’ve enjoyed in North America has been in Fremont, California, and Montreal, Quebec, Canada. My wife and I decided to pay our first visit to Panjshir last night; we were somewhat chagrined we had never bothered to check out the restaurant. We mentioned the Times review to the owners and they had not read Jimmy’s piece. We were very pleased with every aspect of the evening. We found the service superior to Bamian and the broad selection of dishes we sampled were well executed by the kitchen. Would I rather eat Afghan in Fremont? Probably, but we’ll be back to the heart of the City of Falls Church to enjoy Panjshir again. Thanks for the reminder, Jimmy.

  3. Michele Black on March 16th, 2010 9:40 pm

    Jimmy, I’ve been enjoying your reviews. However, as a not-quite-white-haired, not-quite-granny, I believe that your characterization of the patrons at Panjshir was off the point, not to mention ageist and sexist. If your point was that the patrons were not Afghani, what did their age, their sex, or the color of their hair have to do with anything? Was the point that older people don’t know good food when they eat it or that they have timid palates? Does one have to be thirty-something to be knowledgeable about food or to have eaten adventurously? Keep up the good work, but please leave the stereotypes at home.

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