Farewell, Kabul

All that said, I must confess I was rather taken with Caravan Serai--not so much for the food, the penny-pinching prices, or even the (excellent) service, but for the overall experience of sitting in an Afghan tent, listening to Afghan music, and pondering thoughts of exile and the scattered accents of diaspora.

The loss of homeland is central, too, in the thinking--and the art--of Emel Sherzad, who runs quiet Khyber Pass with his wife Masooda. Sherzad is also a talented painter whose canvasses hang on the restaurant's walls. "I think I express my exile in my work," he says. "When I left [Afghanistan], part of me remained back there. I see that part of me expressing itself in various ways--in the tumultuous mountainscapes in my abstract work, in the explosions and unrest there."

Sherzad neatly confines such turmoil to his art, though; his restaurant runs as neatly as a new clock. The food emphasizes fresh herbs and spices, organic ingredients, and clear, strong flavors. Maybe that's why Khyber Pass reminds me of dinner at a college professor's house--considerate, smart, yet essentially homey and modest. The restaurant looks like a professor's kitchen as well, befitting its college-saturated Mac-Groveland neighborhood: The furniture is merely serviceable, but the place brims with artwork and the houseplants in the windows flourish with the vigor of the carefully tended.

Like dinner at the professor's: Emel and Masooda Sherzad's Khyber Pass
Craig Bares
Like dinner at the professor's: Emel and Masooda Sherzad's Khyber Pass

Location Info

Map

Caravan Serai Restaurant

2175 Ford Parkway
St. Paul, MN 55116

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Highland Park

Care and consideration are apparent, too, in the hot, quartered pita bread and chutni that precede all the entrées. Chutni is a yummy, salty purée of cilantro, lemon, a bit of garlic, and walnuts--a perfect summer treat alongside a beer. (Summit runs $2.50 here, Leinenkugel's $1.95.) In addition, each entrée comes with basmati rice and salata (a spicy little salad of tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, mint, and lime juice), making me feel as if I were eating for hours at a stretch while never topping $15 a person.

Aushak ($3.25), those pasta dumplings that disappointed me at Caravan Serai, appear on Khyber Pass's menu as an appetizer; on my visit they were delicious, fresh and light as if just assembled, and they disappeared from the table with lightning speed. Khyber Pass's boranee banjan ($2.95) was a fine take on the eggplant-and-tomato theme, the eggplant still springy, the stewed sauce colorful and bright.

The most impressive entrée I had was a special, so take those little photocopied inserts in the menu seriously. Kadoo boranee consisted of honey-touched chunks of butternut squash cooked with tomatoes and onions, jazzed up with a bit of coriander and cayenne, and topped with garlic-laced yogurt--a virtuoso example of complementary contrasts. A vegetarian combo plate ($8.65) featuring sabzi, a dish made of fresh spinach, dal (a chunky version of the lentil stew), and kachaloo (spicy potatoes with green peas) was also exemplary: Each item boasted a unique flavor without the blurring common in long-cooked vegetable dishes. Both entrées were vibrantly spiced by cooks who grind most of their own seasonings in the kitchen.

I didn't have as much luck with the meat dishes I tried. Korma e sabzi ($9.75), a dish of stewed lamb served with spinach, was dry and unpleasant; aush ($9.25) was essentially spaghetti topped with a few different sorts of beans and ground beef. I looked with envy on a neighboring table that had ordered a lamb shish kebab ($9.95); the portion was large, and the couple kept exclaiming how good it was.

Dessert selections at Khyber Pass are modest, but satisfying. I particularly liked a creamy rice pudding ($3.25) studded with pistachios and walnuts that emits a potent cardamom perfume--a scent conducive to melancholy and reflection.

Sherzad is no stranger to those kinds of thoughts. "After we had to leave Afghanistan, I became obsessed with that part of the world," he recalls. "But then when we had kids--well, we essentially decided not to think about it in order to remain sane. It would be quite criminal to take my family there now. We wouldn't survive very long."

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