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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Uncharted Flavors

Afghan Grill

952 Troy Schenectady Road (Peter Harris Plaza), Latham, 783-5553. Serving daily 10-10; lunch buffet Mon-Fri 11-2. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Afghan and pizza

Entrée price range: $8 (lamb curry and more) to $16 (mixed kabab plate)

Ambiance: casual, informal

By B.A. Nilsson

Anyone who can make okra taste fantastic while presenting butternut squash in a completely unexpected light is my kind of cook. And Hayat Osmani isn't simply demonstrating his own skill at the skillets: He's giving our area its first taste of Afghan cuisine.

A year and a half ago, Hayat and three of his brothers took over what was a pizza joint in the Peter Harris Plaza on Route 7. They maintained both the name-Torino's-and the menu, adding a few Afghan kababs and promising more. Last week, that promise was realized. The restaurant's name has changed, the interior has been extensively redecorated, and the menu now teems with a variety of native offerings. And you can still get a pizza.

Those kebabs were enough of a success that the list has been expanded. Lamb, chicken and ground beef are the core offerings, in varying combos. The meat gets a marinade of Afghan spices and garlic, with yogurt added to the chicken chunks, and is skewered and grilled over charcoal. Lamb chunks, a ground beef loaf (kofta) and three types of chicken are $10 apiece, on a platter with rice and sides of bread and salad. Chicken is served in boneless chunks, as bone-in segments with saffron or in its entirety-at least to the extent of a half-bird.

For more ambitious eaters, the chopan kabab ($13) gives you a quartet of grilled lamb chops, while a pair of "manager's specials" combines the above ($15 and $16). Kabab meats are also available worked into salads ($11).

But when you have flavors such as the lively mix that accompanies the okra, even a meat-lover like me can be swayed to the other side. And a number of good vegetarian dishes abound ($8 apiece): Sabzi is an herb-and-peppers-enhanced spinach dish; gulpi does the same with cauliflower. The eggplant in badenjan borani is cooked in a tomato sauce and served in a yogurt sauce, a wonderful combo.

You can get the eggplant as an appetizer as well ($4), and you'd be crazy not to try the kado borani, the aforementioned butternut squash, marinated with just enough vinegar to give the squash a tang in addition to its sweetness. A slightly different yogurt sauce, livened with garlic, accompanies it.

"These are both characteristic of the cooking of southern Afghanistan," says Hayat. Flavors boast complexity without spicy heat, although you can adjust the temperature either by asking that the dish be made fierier, or by using the tableside hot sauces (red pepper or cilantro, two homemade brews).

A number of seafood dishes include Afghan preparations of shrimp or salmon ($15 each); they even give a native twist to fish and chips ($11).

Although Afghanistan shares a southern border with Pakistan, the curry isn't as spicy as that neighbor's cuisine might have inspired. An order of lamb curry (kurma palow, $8) has a presence of tomato and a comfortable balance between sweetness and spice. A little fancier is the kaboli palow ($9), in which the curry of chicken or lamb is topped with raisins, carrots and almonds.

Such Middle Eastern standards as hummus and baba ghanoush are available, of course, as well as the pastry turnover called a samosa, familiar from Indian cookery. Mantoo ($9) is a pie stuffed with ground beef and onions, served with a yogurt sauce; aashack ($9) is a vegetarian version.

Where do the recipes come from? "I grew up eating this food," Hayat says with a laugh, "but I also learned much of it from my uncle, who ran four Afghan restaurants in New York City." And that's where Hayat put in his kitchen training, 15 years of mastering the cuisine even as he's been pursuing studies in computer science and physical therapy.

His brother Adam is likely to be your host, and you might also see brother Najib. But he, like co-owner Mohammed, also has a full-time job elsewhere.

"We started moving up here slowly," Hayat explains. "My uncle came here seven or eight years ago, and as the rest of us got older and had families, we didn't want to live right in New York."

A flurry of refurbishment has paid off, transforming what was a pizza parlor into something a little more subdued, with artwork and keepsakes on the walls and plain chairs dressed up with handsome coverlets. The most striking feature of the dining room is the portrait, painted by a friend of Hayat, of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula, who was famously depicted in a 1985 National Geographic cover.

Sample the fare at the weekday lunch buffet, a $7 feast offered from 11 AM to 2 PM, featuring a couple of Afghan entrées, a tray of rice, something Italian (baked ziti was offered when I visited), salads, spreads and even pizza. What with the many office workers nearby, the selections change daily for variety's sake.

I watched a steady stream of people stop by to find out what this newly named restaurant is all about, and those who didn't immediately stay took menus and promised to return. So I anticipate a lot of excitement. And it's especially nice, during times of international political strife, to be reminded of how much we have in common.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady Day Nursery will hold “A Little Bit of Jazz,” a food-intense benefit at Schenectady County Community College from 5:30-8 PM tonight (Thursday) with a buffet that includes a carving station, antipasto table, pasta station, tapenade, coffee and desert. The event also will feature vocalist Colleen Pratt and Friends, wine tastings and a silent auction. John and Karen Mantas, owners of Mike’s Hot Dogs on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, will be honored. Admission is $50 per person. For an invitation, contact Joanne DeVoe at 573-0773. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food at banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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