Baltimore has its own beloved Afghan restaurant, The Helmand, which opened in Mount Vernon in 1989 and from the start charmed diners with its refined version of Afghan cuisine in a candlelit urban setting.
Howard County has Maiwand Kabob, which is equally beloved. Naseem and Roxanna Rafiq opened the first Maiwand Kabob in 1991 in the Harpers Choice Village Center. Two more locations followed, in Linthicum Heights and Hanover.
In June, the Rafiqs, with their daughter, Nina, opened a new location in Columbia Crossing. As an enticement for Maiwand regulars, there are a dozen or so menu items at Columbia Crossing not available at the other locations. These includes appetizers like baba ghanouj and stuffed flat breads and entrees like tandoori chicken and chicken kebab salad.
There's something else new at the Columbia Crossing location — some real atmosphere. The existing Maiwand locations are utilitarian and can feel crowded. Many customers are content to carry home their generous portions of kebabs, dumplings and curries. The Rafiqs are hoping customers will stay a while at their new restaurant.
They've done a very nice job creating an inviting atmosphere with neutral colors and natural surfaces. Chandeliers and metallic accents, like the sheer curtains that can be drawn over booths for private dining, create a touch of elegance.
Not everything about a recent dinner at Columbia Crossing felt so elegant, but the food was absolutely ready for company. Maiwand fans will start their meal with either the aushak or the mantu, or both. So should you. They rank among our region's best appetizers.
The aushak are scallion-filled ravioli, prettily translucent, covered partially with a mint-garlic sauce and topped with ground beef. The mantu, close cousins, are dumplings topped with a homemade yogurt, meat sauce and meat. With each, the dough has a melting texture and the yogurt sauce is refreshingly tart. But it's the meat sauce that makes them so wonderful. Aromatic, with hints of cinnamon and coriander, the tomato-based sauce has a pleasantly oily quality that permeates the entire dish.
The pan-fried baby pumpkin appetizer at Maiwand Kabob is both coarser and less intense than The Helmand's well-known version, which is something of a local legend. The Helmand's version is vegetarian, but Maiwand's is topped with the house's meat sauce, which makes the appetizer satisfyingly robust.
The core entree choices are various kebabs featuring marinated and boneless chunks of lamb, chicken or beef. Maiwand Kabob has a knack for making these meats succulent and tasty. You'll want to try as many different kebabs as you can, and unless you're sharing plates, a combination is the thing to get. Don't pass up the chicken. Elsewhere, chicken kebabs tend to be bland and dry, but the marinated chicken chunks at Maiwand are juicy, full of flavor and extremely satisfying.
Afghan cuisine, with a few exceptions, doesn't rely on hot spices for effect. The seasoning is subtler, more mellow. But there are exceptions. One of the entrees exclusive to Columbia Crossing, chapli kebab, are pan-fried patties of minced ground beef seasoned, rather assertively, with chili, cumin and cilantro. It was the favorite at our table.
After a round of appetizers and kebabs, which come with a small chopped salad, homemade naan, aromatic rice and a mint sauce, you might not need dessert. But it is offered. In addition to the standard dessert selections like baklava and rice pudding, the new Maiwand Kabob offers an Afghan custard, which wasn't available when we visited, and pistachio ice cream, which we thought very refreshing.
When it first opened, Maiwand Kabob was having diners order at a counter — as is done in the other locations — and wait for their food to be brought to their table. But that's recently changed, and at least at dinner, orders are now taken at the table. When we visited, the staff was a little tentative in the new role.
Nina Rafiq told me that her family is committed to making the new Maiwand Kabob a casually elegant option for Columbians looking for an affordable date-night destination. Maiwand Kabob is a BYOB, too, which makes it a real potential contender in its new category.
It really won't take much. The servers will need to be less shy and know the menu better. And the entrance, which now directs patrons directly to the front counter, will have to be reconsidered.
The prices at Columbia Crossing are a dollar or two higher than at the other locations, but I don't think people would mind paying a dollar or two more, provided the owners follow through on that commitment.
Where: 6131 Columbia Crossing Circle, Columbia
Contact: 410-872-0975, maiwandkabob.com
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers all $4.99; entrees $9.99-$16.99
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭Poor: ✭>]