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Where: 2102 Main St., Vancouver
When: Dinners, Wednesday through Sunday; brunch menu to start soon
Info: 604-318-3456; zarakvancouver.com
When our country seems to be in the throes of a nervous breakdown, I suggest you visit Zarak for a hit of sanity and kind hospitality.
It’s the sister restaurant to Afghan Kitchen in Surrey, which was visited by Food Network’s John Catucci last year and voted on to Open Table’s Top 100 restaurants in Canada. This hipper, modern Main Street version, part of a new condo development, has been rocking it since opening last December and the appeal isn’t just the food and Afghan-inspired cocktails — you don’t land on Main Street without cocktails — it’s also the famous Afghan hospitality where guests are treated like gold.
In fact, Zarak translates to ‘gold’ and gold flakes are incorporated into the interior of the restaurant.
“It symbolizes hope for Afghanistan,” says partner and general manager Hassib Sarwari. “Despite its political turmoil, there can be beauty.”
The interior takes the hues of the wood and mud houses of Afghanistan and servers, all of them friendly and welcoming, wear vests made of distinctive Afghan textiles.
Sarwari’s family fled during the first Taliban takeover of Afghanistan more than 20 years ago. His parents and four young boys escaped to Pakistan.
“My father had a lot of businesses and was well-known. We spoke a dialect of Persian and the Taliban were definitely looking for such people. We packed backpacks and fled and left everything behind. Literally,” he says.
His father died of a heart attack at age 39, likely brought on by the trauma. And just like that, Sarwari became the breadwinner at 17, working two jobs while going to school after the family moved to Canada in 2003.
“When you have the responsibility of looking after the entire family, you don’t have the choice to fail. You have to make it work,” he says. “My brothers were young but I remember every second of my life with dad. Sometimes I’m cursed with having a good memory.”
Since he was a kid, he had always wanted to operate a restaurant. In Canada, his mother showed love by cooking for them.
“Mom’s passion for cooking was the reason behind everything I’ve done so far. It was her way of keeping family close. We’d come home from school to her meals and see her love.”
One brother is now cooking and developing recipes with her and another is managing the Surrey restaurant. A friend, Winnie Sun, has joined the family business and she’s been responsible for a very interesting cocktail list with an Afghan theme.
Sarwari says his mother’s instinct is to be generous and fill plates to overflowing.
“When we first started, she wouldn’t send out a plate if it wasn’t full. It took her time to understand this was a commercial kitchen,” he says.
Servings are still generous, considering how food prices have been shooting up.
Afghanistan sits at the intersection of Silk Road trading routes and so the food of the Far East, India, Persia and the Mediterranean, crept into the cuisine. You’ll find flavourful crossroads, for example, in the popular dumpling dishes ($13 to $21, depending on size). Mantu, a steamed won-ton-like dumpling with a spiced beef filling, is served with yellow dal and chaka, a thick yogurt. Aushak is filled with leeks, chives and spinach, and served with a tomato sauce. Spicy aushak has cabbage, carrots and bean sprouts, and comes with lubya, a kidney bean curry.
Bolani ($14 or $20) is a large, crepe-like fried flatbread with a potato stuffing and served with a chutney. Don’t miss this savoury treat.
I think mom got her way with the lamb shoulder ($27) — it’s a hungry-boy plate with a thick slice of lamb, some lovely long-grained rice and a bean chili. The lamb is first cooked in a pressure cooker until tender then slow-roasted to brown and crisp.
I asked about the fluffed, flavourful rice.
“It has to be the most complex dish in the kitchen,” Sarwari says. “It’s a long process and has a lot to do with the spices mom mixes for aroma and taste.”
A lamb shank ($27) is served with salad and kachaloo, or slow-roasted potatoes. The shank is braised in a spiced vegetable puree of peppers, onions, celery, tomatoes and garlic, which helps tenderize the meat and tone down the gaminess of lamb.
And there are kebabs — Triple A sirloin, chicken breast and lamb — served with rice or naan ($19 to $21). They’re grilled on a char broiler specifically designed for kebabs to distribute heat evenly while lifting the meat above the heat.
“We tried so many char broilers,” says Sarwari.
The rosewater cardamom ice cream will take you to a beautiful place.
“Growing up, there weren’t a lot of ice creams, only this one. When I wanted to open a restaurant, I said I have to have this ice cream,” Sarwari says.
He returned to Afghanistan during peaceful times and visited ice cream shops in three cities.
“I finally found the rose cardamom ice cream I liked and they gave me the recipe.”
A mantle of cream, poured over the ice cream, hardens with pistachios and other nuts. One large scoop is meant for two, “but if mom serves it, it’s two scoops,” laughs Sarwari.
There are plans to add a brunch menu and pastry Chef Daniel Munoz (Viva Bakery, Bench Bakehouse, AnnaLena) will be brought in as a consultant for that — he earlier worked on most of the desserts.
Sun, a self-taught mixologist, creates fun, eclectic and delicious cocktails with ingredients like mint, cardamom, fig, date, rose water, saffron and pomegranate. There’s also a solid selection of local craft beers and a wide-ranging wine list.
As he visits tables, you can see Sarwari is a happy man, sharing the love and the beauty wrought out of turmoil.
“This is absolutely a dream come true. Sometimes it’s 20-hour days but I couldn’t ask for a better life, the satisfaction of having family around.”
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