Some years ago, I happened to be riding a bus in northern Iran headed toward the Afghanistan border. It was winter. The weather was dark and threatening. When the snow first began falling, I kept focused on the spectacular landscape, viewing a countryside dotted with people who looked like they were called from Central Casting to participate in a National Geographic special.
But as the storm thickened, I noticed that the speeding bus driver seemed to be the only person in the history of Iran who took the word "schedule" as an order and not a suggestion.
As we careened down the road, my frightened fellow passengers burst into prayer. As far as I could make out, their lamentations speculated disturbingly on the nature of the hereafter, a destination that seemed a lot closer than the one we originally set out for.
I recalled those prayers as we headed to Chopandaz, an Afghani restaurant in Tempe. This time, though, we were less concerned about the hazards of driving than the hazards of dining. Our group of Middle Eastern veterans feared inauthentic food, expensively priced.
Happily, most of our prayers were answered.
Chopandaz is the term for a master of the Afghani sport of buzkashi. There's no danger of Americans huddled around the TV watching Monday Night Buzkashi, however. The game involves dozens of horsemen trying to lug a headless calf across a goal. The restaurant still sports plenty of signs of its previous life as a Roundtable Pizza parlor: brick walls, green-shaded bankers' lamps and rest rooms labeled "Knights" and "Maidens."
But there are enough artifacts--Persian-style carpets and ornamental woven strips--to prove that someone made a trip to the bazaar. Piped-in Afghani music added to the ambiance, at least until we were inexplicably serenaded with the theme from Love Story. Wedged between Iran and the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan draws much of its culture and cuisine from its neighbors. The food is a marvelous meld, distinctively seasoned, but not spicy hot.
We started off with the appetizer combo, which tilted toward Indian tastes. Pickawra are thin-sliced, battered potatoes, like breaded home fries. Sambosa are four bite-size, flaky pastries filled with mildly seasoned ground beef and vegetables. Best, I thought, are the boulanee, small turnovers filled with a zippy mix of leeks and green onions.
These come with three wonderful chutneys for dipping: tomato, yogurt mint and a spicy cilantro. And there's also a basket of sesame-flecked Middle Eastern bread that's miles better than most of the dinner rolls that grow hard on restaurant tables. Meals all come with soup, a September touch suited more to Kabul than Tempe. Still, the tomato broth, softened by creamy yogurt and lightly studded with ground beef and kidney beans, had a pleasing, delicate taste.
The four of us managed to sample all nine dinner entrees (several can be prepared vegetarian-style) by going the combination-plate route. Aushak, a traditional Afghani dish, is superb. Thin pasta sheets, like flattened ravioli, are filled with tangy green onions and ground beef, and topped with a mild yogurt sauce. It's good enough to have made Marco Polo linger a season in Afghanistan on his way back to Italy.
Kabeli, a tantalizing combination of lamb, slivered almonds, thin carrot strips and raisins on seasoned basmati rice, sounded better than it tasted. The principal culprit: rice that reminded us of Rice-A-Roni. The perfumed fragrance of basmati rice was completely smothered.
The platter of plain basmati rice accompanying the dinners also had problems. The fact that the owner-chef was out of the country and the cooking was handled by subs may have been the reason. The rice was dried-out and tough, as if it had been sitting around too long. Besides rice, kebabs are the other keys to Middle Eastern cooking. Little kebab shops are the McDonald's of that corner of the Earth. Carnivores will be pleased that Chopandaz does them right: long-marinated, juicy sirloin; fragrant, tender lamb; and surprisingly flavorful chicken breast.
Even better, to my mind, is bahnjahn bouranee, an edible ode to eggplant lovers like me. Here, thick slabs of the purple vegetable come slathered with ground beef and some thick yogurt. I could eat this every day and not get tired of it. Not in the same league, unfortunately, are morgh lawand and saebzi chalow. Boneless chicken in yogurt sauce, morgh lawand lacked the zesty blend of spices I expect in this neck of the woods. And the saebzi chalow, a mound of indifferently seasoned spinach, seemed more attuned to the tastes of the Middle West than the Middle East.
You have a choice of only two desserts, but both are terrific. The rice pudding is rich and intensely sweet, topped with crushed pistachios. And the baklava is fresh and moist, dripping with honey and nuts.
Under no circumstances, though, should you pass up qymak chai, an opulent tea drink that left us breathless with adoration. Sweet, creamy and hearty, this was treat enough to substitute for dessert.
One quibble. Meals are served individually, not family-style for sharing, as in Chinese restaurants. Chopandaz offers the option of family-style dining, but tacks on an annoying buck-per-person charge. What next, fees for cloth napkins and sharper knives? It's the same food, isn't it?
Moroccan Restaurant, 4228 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 947-9590. Hours: Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Even during the September restaurant doldrums, the Moroccan seems to thrive. On a recent Friday night, every cushion was taken.
Although there is a small area for Western-style tables and chairs, most patrons opt to sink to the floor and prop themselves on plush cushions surrounding low, ornate tables. If you dine native, be sure to dress comfortably, with loose waistbands. And women should avoid short skirts. A pulling, tugging group across from us gave the belly dancer some unintentional competition.
The menu here is simple. You choose one of four complete dinners, ranging from $12.50 to our choice, the $23.50 Sheik's Feast.
The ritual begins as the waiter pours water over your outstretched fingers. Since there's no silverware (unless you wimp out and ask), they're about the only means of food transport here. And with the food served family-style, your party's publicly cleaned hands furnish a certain reassurance.
There is an etiquette for eating out of communal plates. Mentally carve out an area in front of you that corresponds to your share, and don't stray. It's not good form to reach over to the far side of the plate and grab a particularly tasty-looking morsel.
The meal gets under way with a perky bowl of peppery lentil soup seasoned with cumin. Grab it with both hands and sip, but not too fast, because everything here comes out of the kitchen steaming hot.
And although it's a six-course meal, don't pass up the robust anise-flecked bread that waiters haul around in a big basket. It's a great vehicle for dipping in soup and scooping up the next course.
That's salad, a wonderful plate ringed with tender, marinated carrots and cucumbers circling fragrant, pured eggplant. You won't be able to look at a wedge of iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing again.
By now you might be ready to stretch out your folded legs. Mine, though, had gone completely numb, and I was as incapable of standing as a newborn baby.
No matter. I gave my full attention to the b'stilla, the best thing here. It's oven-hot flaky pastry dough stuffed with meat, nuts and coddled eggs and brushed with powdered sugar. Carefully tear at it with your hands, and remember not to smooth your hair or reach into your pockets.
The Moroccan's management has meal pacing down to a science. After the b'stilla, which everyone seems to have been served simultaneously, the belly-dancing entertainment begins. We witnessed lots of shimmying, shaking and undulating, an outstanding demonstration, as far as my untrained yet eager eye could tell, of the belly dancer's art.
Another etiquette note: diners show their appreciation by stuffing bills in the dancer's gyrating costume. Do not insert a large bill and try to make your own change. Bring some singles with you.
Dinner resumes with the entrees, usually the weak link here, but somewhat better this visit. Chicken fassi is long-simmered chicken cooked with lemon juice and olives. It's only a bit tart, without enough oomph to really make you take notice and pucker.
Lamb m'rouzia comes drenched in honey and sprinkled with raisins and almonds. It's offbeat, and not to my companions' taste. I liked the flavor fine, but the meat was too chewy.
Only the shrimp kotban was defect-free. Six genuinely fresh-tasting shrimp arrived perfectly grilled and skewered, and had us looking around for more.
Next up was couscous, a mild North African grain supporting pleasant steamed carrots, zucchini, squash and turnips. It's pretty bland, lacking a zippy sauce, nothing a visiting relative couldn't handle.
The baklava dessert is the only entirely uninteresting item here, a commercial-tasting afterthought. But the lively mint tea, poured by a skilled waiter from great heights, is a refreshing way to finish off the meal.
Sure, the Moroccan is touristy and kitschy. But it's an evening's worth of reasonably priced good food and entertainment that invariably sends me home in a better mood than when I entered.
FIFE IMITATES ART TOO BAD HE WASN'T AT T... v9-30-92