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Afghan Oasis, Berkeley report (long)

Alexandra | Jul 14, 200305:52 PM

Driving down Allston Way toward Shattuck on Saturday, we were shocked to see that a new restaurant and bar have opened in the Howard Johnson (in the big pink building that used to be a department store but now houses Shattuck Cinemas among other things). The shocking part is that it's Afghani food - now we don't have to go to Fremont to get it! So we rushed over there to check it out Saturday night, and our feelings were mixed. Granted, they've only been open a week or two. But the menu is limited to mid-range items, so we definitely ended up paying more here than at Salang Pass in Fremont for comparable dishes. (We did save on gas, though!)

We tried borani kadoo for an appetizer - always my favorite favorite dish at Afghani restaurants. A must-order. This dish ($4.25) was quite a disappointment. The pumpkin was in disc-shaped pieces and looked to have been pan-seared. It was undercooked (for some reason I'm reluctant to send back undercooked vegetables, whereas I would send back a rare steak) and nearly crunchy, plus the pumpkin's texture was stringy. At Salang Pass and a couple other Afghani restaurants I've been to, the pumpkin has been stewed or baked slowly until it's so caramelized it melts in your mouth. The sauce over top - yogurt, garlic, and mint (I think) -- was good but not great. Maybe they didn't use the really high-fat yogurt? It seemed thin and there wasn't much of it...

Ali and I shared our entrees - duck with qabuli polow (~$12.95) and lamb kabob (~$11.95).

My only complaint with the main dishes (and usually I like appetizers better than mains, so that's a good thing) was the rice. It wasn't basmati, but rather the rice used in Turkish pilaf. Not bad, just not the sublime basmati rice I'm accustomed to in Iranian and Afghani cuisine. Ali also commented that the duck was hidden underneath the rice so you couldn't see it, which seemed odd presentation-wise. And the duck tasted a little like chicken to him... The lamb was very good, very tender, very tasty (seasoned with what looked like sumac), but I couldn't help feeling that the place lacks the rusticness that makes Salang Pass and its ilk so charming. Overall the entrees were good. I'm just not sure they were worth 12 bucks each.

We enjoyed the ras malai (~$3.50) we shared for dessert. Very similar to the Indian ras malai - pillows of paneer in a milky sauce topped with finely chopped pistachios. Good, and I'd like to try the other dessert on the menu, firni, next time we go.

They have a small wine list but we didn't really look at it. Ali was itching for a doogh that evening (the yogurt and mint drink there was a thread on a week or two ago) but they hadn't put it on the menu yet. Our server (perhaps the owner?) said they're working on that.

The room is beautiful and historic, but it's pretty vast, definitely making a cozy dinner difficult. But it could be a great place for a rehearsal dinner or big dinner group. Not many restaurants in the Bay Area have that much space!

Afghan Oasis features belly dancing several nights a week. I was pretty uncomfortable with the belly dancer - I really feel like it takes away from a meal to have a half-naked person hovering around one's table. But others seemed to enjoy it, and a group of women from another table got up and danced with her.

A very strange note (or rather, many strange notes) was struck by a guitarist in the Lucre Lounge, just next door. The Indo-Afghani music in the restaurant was still playing, and this guitarist starts wailing away on some wishy-washy Sting song, which seemed to go on forever. And it was loud! It would be much better if the lounge (all red velvet couches and black walls) were completely separate from the restaurant.

I think this place would work better in a different corner of the Bay Area, oddly enough. Maybe San Jose... Whereas Salang Pass seems more suited to Berkeley than Fremont.

I'd like to hear what others think of Afghan Oasis after they're open for a few weeks. We'll go back in a while for a second try.

Afghan Oasis and Lucre Lounge
2086 Allston Way (at Shattuck)
Berkeley, CA 94707

Brief blurb from Chronicle:

An oasis comes to Berkeley

The handsome dining room in Berkeley's Shattuck Hotel, a 1910 landmark, was once known for elegant tea dances, but it's been dark for almost 10 years.

Now, independent from the hotel operation, it has reopened as Lucre Lounge and Afgan Oasis, with a large, bold black and red lounge that features live jazz and belly dancers Wednesday through Saturday nights. The lounge, one of the few real bars in Berkeley, adjoins the cavernous dining room where diners can sample chef Naim Amir's Afghan dishes.

A garlicky pesto-like cilantro-walnut dip comes to the table with flat bread as soon as you are seated. The garlic theme continues in the yogurt-mint sauce that seasons appetizers like aushak (leek-stuffed ravioli) and buranee kaddo (golden baked butternut squash), and lamb, chicken or fish kebabs.

Lucre Lounge and Afgan Oasis, 2086 Allston Way (at Shattuck), Berkeley; (510) 841-1390. Appetizers, $3.95-$4.25; entrees, $10.95-$17.95; desserts, $3. 50. Lunch and dinner daily.

- Karola Saekel

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