In real estate, they say location is key. Restaurants are no different, and many a great eatery has died due to a less than ideal setting. The Box Afghan Kabob House is awkwardly attached to a BP gas station on a fairly desolate and quiet stretch of Hull Street Road. Even with the sign out front, it's hard to locate and easy to miss.
Inside, the décor is a series of poor choices: Hotel-style conference chairs are placed around tables covered with plastic sheeting more commonly found on the sofas of great-aunts, and foot-tall milk-glass vases filled with artificial flowers make discussion at the table difficult at best. Creating a space that's comfortable and welcoming under current trends is not that hard; this feels forced and unnatural.
The family that runs the place is very friendly and welcoming. They do, however, seem at a bit of a loss as to how to run a professional restaurant. Recommendations are not made, any questions (and even the presence of patrons) are met with a fairly high level of surprise, and you constantly feel the need to try to grab the tray from the unsteady hands of the waiter.
Under most circumstances, I think restaurant consultants are a waste of money (yes, I have worked with a few of them, and they are rarely worth the oxygen they consume), but The Box, which opened in January, could really use a firm hand to bring the décor and service up to snuff.
So, if The Box were a chair, it would have two bad legs, location and décor, and one shaky leg when it comes to service. But what about the food?
Afghan food — The Box being, to my knowledge, the only local eatery primarily focused on Afghan cuisine — is similar to that of Pakistan and Northern India but, at least to me, not quite as spicy. The result is that you taste more of the milder spices such as coriander and cardamom. Some appetizers, like the sambosa (the Afghan version of the samosa), will be familiar to fans of Indo/Pakistani food, while the bouranee baunjan (fried eggplant with yogurt) may not be.
I've been a fan of samosas for years, having grown up eating many delicious varieties while living in Africa, and I've been disappointed in most of the attempts served in Richmond. The sambosas at The Box, while different from those of my childhood, are some of the best I've had in years. Made of mildly seasoned ground beef mixed with chick peas and fragrant herbs, then wrapped in delicate phyllo and served with hari chutney (a green, slightly spicy dipping sauce), they are moist and tasty, a true treat.
Almost every appetizer we tried was a winner. The bouranee baunjan, described as fried but more like pan-seared, was surprisingly good. Also high on the list was the boolawnee — leeks, potatoes and herbs wrapped in pastry and baked until crisp. The mild flavors of the leeks shone through before the slight after-burn of heat kicked in.
Entrées were a little more hit or miss — the lamb was often a bit dry — but none were bad. Chicken kabobs were expertly cooked without a dry piece, and while the flavor was familiar, it was just different enough to be new and exciting. The seasoned rice, served with most dishes, was packed with flavor. Prepared with broth, cardamom and pistachios, it would be worth the trip alone and was perfect with each dish.
Qabili palau is the national dish of Afghanistan and is a must-try entrée. Chunks of lamb are served with seasoned rice and topped with raisins and shaved carrots. The plate is eye-catching, and the rich and savory taste lives up to its appearance. Just be careful; some of the tender lamb pieces have bone shards attached, for added flavor from the marrow and cartilage, and these should be removed.
Save room for a little dessert. For something familiar, yet different, order the gilibi, a funnel cake drizzled with intensely sweet syrup, offset with a cup of kahva, a slightly bitter, spiced green tea — an excellent study in contrasting flavors to wrap things up.
Honestly, I fear for The Box's survival because of the strikes against it. But it does serve food that is interesting, different and worth the trip. They do take-out and delivery, but if you don't eat in, you would miss the fascinating Afghan television on the flat screen. The news program is captivating, but you'll never forget the music videos, especially if one is from Afghan pop sensations Omar and Rameen Sharif.
8151 Hull Street Road, 745-3060
Prices: Appetizers, soups, salads and sandwiches $3 to $6; entrées $9 to $15; desserts $3.50.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.