Last January, Paradise Afghan and Persian Kebob reopened on the corner of Mary Avenue and El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. It's an inauspicious setting, where the establishment shares a parking lot with El Pollo Loco, among other tenants.
Nonetheless, Waziri tried his best to create a dignified environment for customers. Paradise is neat as can be. Each table is outfitted with a fresh red rose in a vase and white tablecloths. The walls are covered with tapestries and posters of Afghanistan. But despite its cleanliness, the restaurant's two dining rooms are miniscule. And it's hard to escape the fact that you're sitting in a storefront in a strip mall.
Tables are set with an assortment of exotic condiments, such as sumac, a dark brown spice rendered from the berries of a wild bush. Water and a basket of crumbly flatbread were brought to the table, along with two chutneys for dipping: a hot and sour red pepper and vinegar sauce and a puckering cilantro and vinegar variation. Be careful not to scoop either like guacamole onto a chip; a little bit will suffice.
All dinners come with a choice of soup or salad. Our first visit opened with shiraz ($2.75), a bowl of cucumber, white onion and tomato drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fine dry herbs. The ingredients were finely chopped, filling the small bowl with a deceptively robust portion that proved both refreshing and spicy — a nice starter.
Legumes loaded the menu's solitary soup option, osh reshteh ($2.75). Thick with kidney beans, lentils and crumbles of fettuccini noodles, the slow cooked vegetable broth implied a dash of mint. A dollop of thinned yogurt swam on top of this dark purple infusion, which helped smooth the edges of its unfussy, musty flavor.
We also sampled dolme ($4.50). The appetizer featured four loosely rolled grape leaf wraps stuffed with tomato-flavored rice and topped with peas cooked in a chunky tomato sauce. It was interesting to try this warmer, sloppier rendition of the traditional grape leaf rolls served throughout the Arab and Mediterranean world.
A longtime fan of babaganouche, I couldn't resist trying the kashk bademjan ($3.95) to see if there was a resemblance. Served warm, the dish featured a yogurt sauce floating on top of a paste made from eggplant, garlic and cinnamon. It came with its own basket of flatbread to dip into this sweet and smoky concoction. Babaganouche? Not precisely, but it was still very tasty.
Nice as these appetizers are, it eventually comes time to move to the entrees. The korfta challow ($12.95), listed on the menu as a house specialty, featured four large ground beef meatballs stewed with peas in a tomato sauce. Served with a large order of rice, the dish was lightly seasoned. It tasted authentic and was substantial — plenty for two diners.
Our combo kebab ($17.95) included six boneless chicken pieces and nine chunks of sliced steak, unseasoned, grilled well done and served with a generous portion of rice. While the beef's charred flavor was satisfying, the chicken was bland. Fortunately, we ordered a grilled tomato (add another buck to the bill), which enhanced the flavor of the meat — but it was still only OK.
So I turned to those intriguing table condiments for a little zippiness. The sumac lent a vaguely sour quality to the meat. At first it seemed quite subtle until I noticed a simmering heat lingering on my lips. In contrast, the blazing red pepper exploded like a firecracker on the taste buds.
Paradise offers several vegetarian entrees, including the keddo bademjon ($10.90), a large dish of sliced eggplant, carrots, potato and peas stewed in a tomato sauce. Served with a side order of rice, the dish was delicious and quite filling, thanks to those starchy potatoes and carrots.
Dessert options were few, but we enjoyed Paradise's baklava ($2.25), an ultra-sweet version of the favorite honey pastry found throughout the Old World. You can't go wrong with layers of crisp filo dough stuffed with ground walnut paste, saturated in honey and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. But avoid the bastani ($3.95), a vanilla ice cream heavily flavored with roses. It's an acquired taste, I'm sure.
No worries, though. Ignore the hurdles and jump in head-first. Paradise's soulful recipes have traversed generations and continents to arrive at your back door, and it's well worth the effort for a fine lunch or dinner from the Old World.
Paradise Afghan and Persian Kabob
604 S. Mary Ave., Sunnyvale
Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.