Pity the poor restaurant that opens anywhere in the area and tries to compete with Baltimore's fine Afghan restaurant, the Helmand on North Charles Street. Up until now, there hasn't been any competition. But then a couple of different Annapolis sources told me that people were excited about Ariana, a new Afghan restaurant in Severna Park.
Ariana isn't a second Helmand; if you're expecting it to be, you're going to be disappointed. But it's not trying to be, so comparisons aren't really fair.
In spite of the name, the ancient name for Afghanistan, Ariana offers almost as many Indian dishes as Afghan, plus Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. Vegetarian dishes of various cuisines are a specialty. The wine by the glass is Greek, and several of the beers are Indian. You can finish your meal with Turkish coffee, cappuccino or Afghan tea with cardamom.
Ariana is located in the Benfield Village Shopping Center, in a storefront where the lights from parking cars can blind you if you're sitting at a table near the window. The decor has a sort of whitewashed simplicity to it. It certainly isn't fancy, but it's pleasant enough, with Afghan textiles hung on the walls, white tablecloths and flowers.
The food is uneven, but a couple of dishes are standouts. You must have the aushak, cloud-like ravioli stuffed with leeks and served with a beef sauce and yogurt.
Qabili is good, too. This is rice pilaf, fragrant with exotic spices, studded with raisins and slivers of carrot. It's a great combination. The rice is served by itself or over tender (but rather dry) chunks of lamb.
I would be happy eating nothing but the delicious Afghan bread, which manages to be both crusty and chewy at the same time.
There are various dips you could order with it; but stay away from barta, an eggplant, yogurt, mint and chopped onion concoction. At least that's what the menu said was in it. There was so much garlic we couldn't taste anything else.
According to our waitress, one of the most popular dishes is the house specialty, zereshk palau. It's another rice pilaf, a Persian one with chicken, red currants and almonds -- and so much saffron it tasted bitter.
Dinners come with small salads; if you want more in the way of vegetables you could get the pumpkin, cooked like squash with yogurt on top.
The menu makes much of the fact that this is low-fat, low-cholesterol food; and it is if you stay away from the various fried turnovers offered as appetizers, both Indian and Afghan. (We tried the sampler and weren't thrilled with any of them.)
With the intense flavors of turmeric, cardamom, mint, garlic and saffron and the liberal use of yogurt here, you probably won't even notice the lack of fat -- at least not until you get to dessert. Then the house special, a low-fat custard "prepared without eggs," may give you pause. It tasted like skim milk, sugar, gelatin and rose water to me.
I went for the calories instead: a delicious, fresh-tasting baklava -- layers of pastry plump with nuts and absolutely drowning in sugar syrup.
Where: 584 Benfield Road, Severna Park
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 9: 30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 10: 30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $1.75-$6.95, entrees: $4.95-$12.95; AE, MC, V
Call: (410) 647-6964
Pub Date: 8/11/96