In the wake of new condos come the businesses catering to their occupants. While this often means Starbucks and other chain establishments, the newest addition to downtown's dining scene is a noteworthy exception. Chopahn, serving Afghan cuisine, has moved from its Golden Triangle location to Sixth Avenue, across from some fancy new lofts between F and G streets.
Chopahn occupies a spacious location with high ceilings and walls painted a warm, welcoming color. With dining areas upstairs and downstairs, Chopahn is set up to accommodate lots of customers. It was empty when we arrived at opening time but quite busy by the time we left the restaurant.
The menu is a lengthy list of appetizers, soups and salads, kebabs, stews, vegetarian entrées and side dishes. Afghan cuisine is like a hybrid of Indian and Persian, which makes sense given where Afghanistan is on a map. The influences of these two cuisines are apparent on the menu. For example, the side dish gulpi consists of cauliflower cooked with ginger, tomato and onions-very similar to a dish you'd find in an Indian restaurant.
We started our meal with a couple of appetizers-aushak, recommended by our server, and bulanee katchalu. The aushak consisted of steamed dumplings with a leek and spring onion filling topped with meat sauce, yogurt and mint. The dumplings, resembling large, loose raviolis, were served at room temperature. The meat sauce was only slightly warmed, and the yogurt was cool, making aushak a light and refreshing starter-especially on a hot night.
The bulanee katchalu, on the other hand, was quite hot. A turnover filled with ground beef, potatoes and herbs, the bulanee was fried and served crisp. Thankfully, the turnover was thin, which kept it from being too heavy a starter. Nicely spiced and flavorful, it was not as light as the aushak but more to my liking.
The appetizers were served with sides of cilantro chutney (made from cilantro, walnuts, garlic, Serrano chilies and herbs) and a yogurt sauce seasoned with garlic and herbs. Both sauces were delicious and accompanied the bulanee beautifully. They were also great with our entrées.
For entrées we sampled a kebab dish and a stew. There are a number of stews on the menu, including lamb with carrots and raisins; lamb with spinach, onion and garlic; and beef with cauliflower, onions, tomatoes, ginger and herbs. The selection of kebabs is large, as well, with chicken, beef, lamb, lamb loin and rack of lamb with pistachio crust. We ordered the combo kebab, consisting of lamb and chicken, and the badenjan pallaw stew-lamb with eggplant, tomatoes, herbs and yogurt. We also ordered a side dish of kadu, which is pumpkin with yogurt and meat sauce.
The kebab plate came with two skewers, one each of lamb and chicken with vegetables, and a generous quantity of basmati rice seasoned with cumin and cardamom. The lamb was cooked medium rare, and both meats were very juicy and tender, retaining a subtle vinegar flavor from the marinade. The sweet cherry tomatoes and onions were also good, nicely mellowed from being roasted over the open flame.
Equally tasty, though quite a bit richer and heavier, was the badenjan pallaw, large chunks of tender roasted lamb nestled in a thick and rich bed of eggplant and tomatoes. The stew was also served with fluffy basmati rice, though in this case seasoned only with butter.
Special mention should be made of the kadu. Pumpkin is a staple of Afghan restaurants, and after sampling this dish, we know why. Cooked to a soft and luxurious consistency, the kadu could be dessert were it not for the meat sauce.
Strangely, none of the desserts on Chopahn's menu included this wondrous pumpkin. Instead, the desserts were limited to a few house-made options, including baklava and a rosewater-scented rice pudding called firnee. The baklava was quite good-and enormous. Dense with ground nuts and lightly sweetened with honey, it avoided the excessive sweetness that sometimes trips up this dessert. The firnee was also tasty, similarly avoiding excessive sweetness, though still rich.
Price-wise, Chopahn is in line with other Gaslamp eateries. Entrées occupy the $17-to-$25 range, with appetizers priced around $6. The wine list is extensive and reasonably priced and was obviously compiled by someone knowledgeable of the subject, with many unusual choices available.
Chopahn is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and for dinner seven days a week. Dinner's served from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.