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Laila's Kitchen

March 28, 2010

When we entered Laila's Kitchen on East Franklin Street in downtown Hagerstown, the first thing we saw on the far wall was a big round clock with Roman numerals to tell the time.

But the curious thing was, when we entered Laila's Kitchen, it was as if time stopped. We were transported to the Afghan culture where hospitality is the rule and where sharing a meal is a timeless event. We could have stayed all day, sipping chai (tea) and talking about Afghan food with the owners, Laila and Sharif Basharyar.

Our friend, Jane, joined us at lunchtime and greeted the owners as friends.

"Do you have anything special in the back?" Jane asked, before she turned to us and said, "There is always something special that is not on the menu."

The menu was on a blackboard next to the clock but we had not studied it. Instead, Sharif was eager to help us.

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"You like chicken?" he asked me and I nodded.

"Lamb, please!" requested the Professor.

Then Sharif asked our friend, "The usual?" and she agreed. He insisted that we have spinach. "It is spring and it is time to eat greens, so you must have spinach, all of you."

And so we did. Along with three cups of ginger chai.

We waited while the sun poured in the window, warm and sweet like honey. Sharif served us a salad. Fresh iceberg lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a dressing like yogurt and tomato.

"Sprinkle this on the salad," said Jane as she took the large glass shaker.

A ruddy condiment poured out. "That's sumac," said The Professor. "It is the ground, dried berry of the sumac tree and you sprinkle it on just about everything with this cuisine."

Sharif was back with our lunch plates. "Put the sumac on your chicken," he said.

My plate held a line of golden chicken kabobs, skewered and grilled. To the side was a circle of fresh hot naan, hand-made white flour bread and a serving of white Basmati rice topped with yellow rice. Jane's plate was the same except that her "special" included a skewer of grilled vegetables --mushroom, yellow pepper, cucumber, tomato, onion. The lamb stew held many layers of flavors of spices, and was both salty and mild. In the center of the table was a plate of spinach, the special vegetable for today, for us to share. The spinach was fully cooked and was laced with white beans, like lima beans.

We sipped our chai while we surveyed our meals. Then, with a thank you to our host, we began to eat. The food was delicious, well prepared and mild in flavor. We had expected strong spices and garlic. My chicken was moist and flavorful. The Professor's stew was delicate with mushrooms, onions and lamb. Jane's shish kabobs were excellent; yet, she left the pepper. Sharif was back.

"You do not like the pepper? It is not a hot pepper." he said.

"I'll take it," I said, leaping to the rescue, "I will enjoy it with my chicken kabobs and naan at home." We sat a long time talking. The downtown lunch crowd had come and gone. I went to the counter to ask Laila about the desserts. This day, there was only the yogurt and the baklava.

"I made the yogurt," Laila told me. "It is not sweet."

The cold yogurt was served in a big plastic cup and the top was sprinkled with crunchy granola, dates, raspberries, blueberries and dribbled with purple fruit juice. The taste was pure milk and sweet fruit. We scraped the bottom of the glass. The baklava was split three ways and was a true baklava, a triangle of pastry, butter, nuts and honey.

I returned alone a few days later. I wanted to study that menu on the wall. The menu was divided into sides, entrees, beverages and sweets. Sides included naan, soup (lentil today), vegetables (spinach), and hummus (a chick pea dip). Entrees included kabobs of chicken, lamb, beef, and vegetable from $8 to $10. There were three different kinds of chai: ginger, mint, and shir-chai. Four desserts were listed including chocolate cake, yogurt and baklava.

I returned because I wanted another cup of tea, shir-chai ($2.25) this time.

Laila was pleased when I ordered the special shir-chai and immediately went to the kitchen to make it. Shir-chai is a milky green tea, fragrant with cardamom seed and ground pistachio nuts. The white cup of tea was warm and sweet. I drank my tea and enjoyed a side dish of hummus ($3.50) with naan. The hummus was mild with no noticeable garlic, just parsley and a red condiment.

Once again, it was as if time stood still.

And then I saw it --the garlic I expected. There, in the corner on the counter, was a huge glass vat filled with heads of garlic.

"What's that?" I asked Sharif.

"Garlic," he grinned. "We marinate it in vinegar and we eat garlic like M & M's."

Oh, I wanted some, but he told me proudly, "Those garlics had been marinating for nine years."

So I did not dare to ask to disturb them.

Omni Vore is a pseudo-nym for a Herald-Mail freelance writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

Restaurant review

Laila's Kitchen

Food: 4 stars (out of 5)

Service: 4 stars

Ambiance: 4 stars

Value: 4 stars

Address: 4 E. Franklin St., Hagerstown

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 6 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday

Style: Afghan grilled cuisine

Phone: 301-797-9494

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