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Girls Gone Wild 

Girls just want to eat spicy food and see movies together

Wednesday, Jul 20 2005
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Even though I knew it was only a coincidence that I was invited to join Lee and Becky for Afghan food and a movie, and that a couple of weeks later, Wendy and Alisa also proposed Afghan food and a movie, it felt like a trend to the cool-hunter in me. Would the new single-girl signifier be digging into a plate of mantoo or a bowl of aush, rather than the time-honored visual of dipping into a Chinese takeout box with chopsticks, or a pint of Häagen-Dazs with a spoon? (God knows I've eaten lots of takeout Chinese and premium ice cream in front of the TV, but never in such slovenly fashion. One of the pleasures of eating Chinese is finishing the plateful of rice soaked with the remnants of the dishes you've heaped upon it, and good ice cream needs to be tempered a bit to release its full flavors. Plus if you scoop it into a bowl, the likelihood of finishing the entire pint in one sitting is considerably lessened.)

Lee had introduced me to the charms of Niles, a tiny East Bay community that survives as an antiques row and on the memories of its brief history as a center of silent film production, when Charlie Chaplin, among others, made films for the Niles Essanay Film Manufacturing Co. Niles itself is remarkably unchanged from those days: The oak-dotted rolling hills that rise behind its main street still look as they did when cowboy actors rode up and down them. The plucky promoters of the annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, named in honor of the pioneering Essanay star, have created the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, housed in Niles' first movie theater, where they show silent films, accompanied by live music, on Saturday nights (www.nilesfilmmuseum.org). Lee and I have pretty much exhausted the somewhat limited dining possibilities of Niles proper during the Broncho Billy festivals we've attended, so she proposed dinner before the intriguingly titled 1920 film Sex, starring the rather prosaically named vamp Louise Glaum, at Salang Pass, an Afghan spot in nearby Fremont, already famous for its many Indian restaurants. (Afghan food incorporates Indian, Pakistani, Asian, and Middle Eastern influences.)

We chose the regulation-height table and chairs over sitting at low tables in a special section of the nicely decorated storefront and dug into an array of delightful dishes, including vegetarian aushak (leek-stuffed raviolis topped with yogurt sauce), a delicious quabili pallow (a pilaf of long-grain brown basmati rice, baked with raisins and cardamom, and topped with shreds of braised lamb shank and carrots), borani kadoo (soft sautéed pumpkin flavored with garlic, saffron, and cardamom, and sauced with yogurt), and the best, most silky-textured firni (rose water- scented milky pudding) I've ever had. (That firni haunts me. I must eat it again.) The koobideh I ordered, an enormous, dense, thin patty of ground beef spiced with chopped leeks, cumin, and a stunning amount of chili powder, was dauntingly hot; I cooled down with sips of dogh, a lassilike yogurt drink. The combination of the exotic food with the exotica of the movie (notably an orgy scene featuring chorus girls riding on the backs of wealthy admirers, and a "dance" number with Glaum dressed as a spider-woman caught in a web) made for an enchanting evening.

My sister Wendy had heard about the six-month-old De Afghanan from an Afghan salesgirl at the nearby Macy's in Walnut Creek (there are also two branches of the restaurant in Fremont), and I was able to join her and Alisa for dinner there one hot Saturday night. (Though not, alas, for Bewitched afterward. But that may have been just as well, according to Wendy.) The restaurant, in a minimall, is dominated by a large open grill-kitchen, and is sparsely decorated with a few travel posters. I was dismayed that they were out of dogh and that the iced tea machine had broken down; that pretty much took care of the cold-drink possibilities, since we're none of us big soda drinkers. (Well, maybe a Coke, if it's got some rum in it to help it along.) We settled for ice water. We started by sharing bolani gandana, thin naanlike bread stuffed with a slippery mixture of sautéed chopped leeks and cilantro, which was fried, cut into squares, and served with cool yogurt; and borani badenjan, a garlicky chopped eggplant and tomato sauté, also sauced with a dab of yogurt. I liked my chupan kabob, charbroiled well-done lamb chops that tasted almost like mutton, and also Alisa's generous serving of quabili pallow; but I kept sneaking bites of the chaplee kabob my sister had ordered, which is De Afghanan's version of the thin ground-beef patty I'd found almost too hot to eat at Salang Pass. This dish was moister and less fiery; I loved it. The firni here was less creamy, more tapiocalike; we also tried their rose water-perfumed ice cream, sheer yakh, with an icy texture like the Indian confection called kulfi, topped with pistachios.

The jamais-deux-sans-trois part of me wished I could come up with a convenient Afghan restaurant in the Castro for dinner during the 10th annual Silent Film Festival, which may be my favorite film fest of all time: tightly paced (nine programs over three days), cleverly programmed (ranging from the familiar -- Harold Lloyd, Clara Bow, Lillian Gish -- to the unknown -- a poetic Indian movie about the prince who became Buddha, and a Brazilian feature from the father of Cinema Novo -- all accompanied by appropriate, brilliantly performed live music), and featuring a genuine dinner break, so you don't have to choose one kind of sustenance over another. But, lacking a local Afghan spot, I picked Tallula, an Indian-influenced small-plates-and-bigger-ones establishment, open for a couple of years, that I'd previously visited only once, to try the spiced pommes frites, on a tip from my astute colleague Jonathan Kauffman. He was right, and the masala-dusted, hand-cut, big fries made it into our Best of San Francisco® issue as "Best French Fries."

I was a little stressed because we had barely an hour and a half for our Saturday night supper, but the charming hostess assured me it would be all right as we wended our way up and down staircases to reach one of the dining rooms in Tallula's eccentrically configured Victorian: "There are lots of people going to the festival here tonight." I steamrolled the girls a bit, ordering an array of small plates to share -- tilapia seviche, lobster and pea dhosa, steamed mussels, pommes frites; Martine managed to slip in a request for a dinner special, ahi tuna, and Hilary insisted that I'd hit upon all her choices during my rapid-fire requests. When I asked our server for her suggestions, she mentioned the paneer tart, happily, for though I'd avoided the enticing steak tartare (with its garnish of quail egg, mango pickle, and pickled turnip), remembering that Lee, who was on her way to join us, was a vegetarian, I hadn't chosen much else that she could eat.

In the event, she professed herself well-satisfied with her meal, which consisted mainly of the nicely spiced fries, crisp and cuminy outside and floury within, served with an aioli tinted pale pink with mango pickle; the cubed golden-and-red-beet salad that came with the velvety slices of barely cooked, cool-at-the-center ahi tuna (which we carnivores gobbled up); and the paneer tart, a flaky pastry crust filled with a custard of the very mild fresh cheese, invisible under a lovely heaped salad of baby greens in a chili vinaigrette, topped with crunchy walnuts, and sided with fig chutney. When I remember the appetite with which Lee devoured the purple pansy that decorated the dish, I kick myself for not ordering another item that she could have eaten: the aloo tikki, alluringly described as lemon and cilantro potato pancakes served with tamarind date chutney. And while I was at it, I would have requested a second helping of the lobster and pea dhosa, which is one of the best things I've eaten in months, and which I'll blame for distracting me from my guests' needs. The carefully extracted pink meat of an equally carefully cooked lobster claw rested atop a delicate, lacy brown crepe, rolled around more diced lobster meat and fresh green peas, nestling on a lake of lemon beurre blanc. There was just a hint (thank God) of truffle oil. The crepe was both supple and slightly crisp to the tooth; the stuffing was divine. It was rich and light at the same time. I also enjoyed the pillowy soft tilapia seviche, white as could be, crunchy with tiny onion dice, perfumed with lime juice, cilantro, and green chilies, and served in a pappadum bowl, and, even more, the big steamed mussels drenched in coconut milk, scented with kari leaves and fenugreek -- but oh, you kid, that crepe. Harveen Khera, the chef who creates these poetic Indian-French dishes, has a good handle on just what delicious is.

Thanks to the thoughtful service, we even had time for dessert. The kitchen was out of the hazelnut-chocolate mousse, which I would have chosen in deference to the three noted chocoholics I was dining with, but since Hilary had kept us generously supplied during the movies with her new favorite chocolate bar, a Lindt offering flavored with orange peel and chopped almonds, we settled for a lovely warm almond cake, shaped like a tiny bundt cake, drenched in orange blossom consommé and served with vanilla bean kulfi, and a dual serving of crème brûlées, one lightly flavored with mango, the other with green tea.

The girls urged me to visit the bathroom on our way out, largely because it was lit only by a myriad of candles and smelled so good, like a combination of sweet spices and warm candle wax. In leaving, I thanked our server and the hostess for taking such good care of us, and they both alluded to the happy family of workers that the place has created. On the way back to the movies, I was thanked profusely by my guests, who thought that choosing Tallula had been a stroke of genius on my part. I knew that the real geniuses were working back at the restaurant.

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Meredith Brody

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