12 January 2017 - Kabul Darbar: Abra-kabul-darbar - Curry magic
Its the New Year, a time for fresh perspective and new challenges. I myself, upon realizing that Balham has a ridiculously high concentration of hairdressers, considered starting a new blog - the Balham barbers blog, in which I get my haircut in each of the 18 or so salons. However, my hair can only grow so quickly and I'd rather just eat curry instead.
So, seasonally affected by post Xmas blues and dried out in Jan, what better way to start the year than a trip down Upper Tooting Road. After an impressive debut visit late last year I was desperate to return to Kabul Darbar so I took 7 friends along. Another Afghanistani joint, promising kebabs, lamb curry and big naans, is always welcome in our books, especially with the sad demise of Rayyans. 2.5 hours, 4 courses and £160 later here's the review.
Kabul Darbar is a fairly new player on the scene and has set up stall in the heat of the battle, a short kebab’s length North of Mirch Masala. However, it has opted for a more relaxed, spacious environ than the hectic curry canteen conveyor belts nearby (Mirch Masala, Lahore Karahi and Saravanaa Bhavans).
Its smart black sign with orange writing and draped with fairy lights sets a relatively classy tone, whilst inside the spot lit interior is tastefully adorned with greenery and pictures alike. There's still a place for the ubiquitous, high backed leather chairs- red this time - but as with the rest of fixtures everything was new and in good condition. Not something you can say about most local establishments. A bar-shaped counter at the far end completes the setup, but alas, this only serves as a waiters station as no alcohol is served or allowed here.
In general, a very pleasant setting with a reasonable level of custom witnessed throughout our stay. No real faults apart from the drinks situation so it's a solid 7 for venue.
Starters and sides
Mantoo (minced lamb dumplings)
Bale Murgh (chicken wings)
Bandenjan buranie (aubergine) x3
Qabuli maecha (lamb shank rice)
Plain naan x4
Afghan green tea
So, as you can see, we didn't hold back on this front. There were 8 of us so that helps explain the volume but so does the quality of the food that had us ordering more.
The centrepiece of the order was the mixed grill which initially drew mocking laughter from the waiter who thought I was ordering it as a starter all for myself. This made sense when a boat sized dish ran aground on our table. He still seemed incredulous after the explanation but perhaps this was less about the size and more about the price of the dish, which splashed in at a weighty £30 sterling. Perhaps he's more financially savvy than us and waiting to pounce with his Afghan Afghani savings once the Brexit pound plummets even further, who knows; we can only assume.
Whilst expensive there was still a fair amount of bang for our buck. I don't know if 'half a chicken on top' is an Afghani idiom but that's certainly what we got. Piled else wise amongst a sea of rice were chicken wings, minced kofte chicken kebabs, lamb chops, and lamb and chicken tikka pieces. A tidy feast but not as succulent as other similar local offerings, despite strong individual performances from the lamb tikka pieces and chicken kofte. I was particularly disappointed by the lamb chops, but only as they were excellent on a previous visit (the four-piece, Qaborgha Lamb on the menu). The side dish of Bale Murgh (chicken wings) were equally average, but the other excellent plates made up for this.
Firstly, the Mantoo, a generous dish of eight minced lamb dumplings topped with yoghurt are a deliciously juicy bite. Equally well presented is the Bandenjan Buranie, thin aubergine slices topped with yoghurt, garlic, mint and spices, that left my friend still eulogising days later.
In addition to these unique sides, we added several plain naans and rice. The kayak sized naans offered excellent value for money at £1.50 with fresh, fluffy texture to boot, whilst the mountain of carrot and raisin topped rice managed to hide a whole lamb shank. Whilst this plate (the Qabuli Maecha) is fairly novel we had experienced something similar before at Namak Mandi. However, it was quite pricey here (~£10) and wasn't ordered intentionally (a mix up over the pilao rice order). Nevertheless the rice was nicely flavoured and the lamb within was beautifully tender.
To end the meal we ordered a round of Afghan green tea to wash everything down. This turned out to be a bad decision as it took a while to arrive and by this point it was nearing 10pm. However, it was still a nice way to close, with ginger adding a nice spicy kick to see us on our way.
Thanks to the quality of the better dishes it's a big 8 out of 10 for sides and starters.
Channa Dal x3
Qurma e Murgh (chicken curry) x2
Charsi Chicken Karahi 1/2kg x2
Mixed Veg Curry
Bamiya Gosht (okra with lamb) x2
Having only ordered the starters at first, we had another round of ordering for the mains. This in turn prompted another, third round when the first failed to satiate the ravenous appetites of my fellow eaters.
The Channa Dal proved most popular with positive noises accompanying almost every mouthful. This chickpea showstopper offers a deep smoky taste that keeps you going back for more. Likewise, the Bamiya Gosht - lamb with okra - and the Charsi Lamb Karahi were richly flavoured and the meat melted in the mouth. The latter came cooked and served on the bone adding even more tenderness and flavour.
Some criticism can be levelled at the portion size especially the Charsi which, sold by the half kilo, feels slightly less weighty when you take the bones into account and the Qurma e Murgh was fairly lightweight in size and taste too. However, these are matters of value for money not quality, which was high.
The veg curry was average, but flavour-wise the best dishes were close to 9. On balance an 8 seems an overall fair assessment when taking the slightly weaker dishes and portion sizes into account.
Our waiter had a touch of Adam Sandler to him both in air and appearance. However, one can only assume he has had a far less successful film career (a walk on role in the Kite Runner, at best).
He had a very happy-[Gilmore]-go-lucky demeanor and general laid back attitude. The parallels don't stop there either, whilst one has made a career churning out mediocre to poor family comedies the other proved equally productive as the only one visibly working in the restaurant - a sort of water boy character if you will. If, as suspected, he was pitching in in the kitchen as well as serving tables, it would explain the long-ish wait times between courses. This slightly sluggish service could be forgiven as he was completely unfazed by his isolation and was what can only be described as (in somewhat patronising tones) a 'good lad'. He was also well turned out in apron and bow tie, which is more than can be said of 80% of Tooting curry house employees.
So thanks to Little Nicky, it's a 7 for Service
Value For Money
Given the number of us and the number of dishes it's hardly surprising we racked up a substantial bill; £160 in fact. £20 a head may not seem too much to pay in our nation's capital for a veritable feast, but we weren't paying for alcohol and might've expected a few more economies of scale from a Tooting curry. This, added to the price of the big ticket items and the fact that some of the portions were on the relatively small side make this less value for money than neighbouring restaurants. As a comparative example, I remember being stuffed in Mirch Masala with 5 others for £8 a head plus BYO alcohol - you do the math!
With stiff competition in this category, value for money is a slightly harsh 6 on this occasion, despite the top quality dishes adding significant credit.
In summary, Kabul Darbar is a worthy addition to the Tooting curry circuit that comes highly recommended by us. With the disappointment of Afghan Palace on our last outing, Kabul Darbar is finally the replacement for Rayyans we've been looking for. We would love to return to try the fish dishes to be doubly sure, but two visits so far have left a solid impression. With an overall total of 36/50, Kabul Darbar shoots firmly into the top end of our leaderboard.
Address: 203 Upper Tooting Rd, Tooting, London SW17 7TG
Alcohol Policy: No alcohol
Summary: Excellent Afghan food in a pleasant setting.