Pamir: The Crossroads Between East and West, Sweet and Savory
Look for pomegranates, pistachios and orange flower water on the menu at this South Street Afghan restaurant
Situated in a fertile climate on the Silk Road that connected the ancient East and West, Afghanistan boasts a cuisine of meats, grains and vegetables accented with the flavors of pomegranates, pistachios and orange flower water.
Like any country that's been pieced together during recent centuries, Afghanistan's cuisine varies by region, but some common threads, like saffron, run through many of the nation's dishes. Browse the menu at Pamir, and you might notice that it shares much in common with its Persian neighbor on the other side of Morristown's green, Marjan Persian Grill. The people, language and food of Afghanistan and Iran overlap, and my server at Pamir the other night was hard pressed to tell me what separates Afghan food from Persian food, besides different names for some dishes.
Recently relocated from Washington Street, Pamir is now on South Street between Sona Thirteen and Zebu Forno. The dining room is long, with a brick wall on one side and the other side split between a dark wood bottom and a contrasting light yellow wall that runs up to its high ceiling. Windows with Easter egg decals at the front of the restaurant offer a view on to South Street. Red lanterns cast a glow in the restaurant, and Afghan music plays in the background.
I caught Pamir at the tail end of restaurant week, when it was offering a $30 prix fixe meal that included selections from the restaurant's more popular items.
The evening began with a smiling waitress and a small, dense slice of bread, served with a tiny wedge of cheese, similar to a mild feta, and a small cup of four green olives.
For starters from the prix fixe, I chose the cold appetizer selection over the hot. Served on a dish partitioned in four, the medley included two tender grape leaves stuffed w rice and topped with a tiny bit of tomato sauce, hummus surrounded by wedges of crunchy pita chips, a refreshing mix of chickpeas, cucumbers and yogurt, and a chickpea and potato salad with a vinegar-based dressing.
The minor details of the presentation were well attended to, from the olive and parsley leaf in the center of the hummus to the tiny mint leaf standing in the center of the chickpea salad. The hummus offered hints of garlic and sesame. The chickpea salad included tiny flecks of dried mint. Each of these appetizers had many elements, but nothing overwhelmed–in both taste and presentation.
Salad was served next–a blend of chopped romaine, shredded carrots and cabbage, and one slice of a tender, mild beet. The creamy dressing was colored with a good dusting of paprika.
For my entree, I had explained to my server that I was torn between the pomegranate-marinated fish and the diced lamb served over a bed of "norange" rice, saffron rice with almonds, pistachios, rose water, orange strips and cardamom. She explained that I could have the best of both: the fish served with the norange rice.
The entree was served on two dishes too hot to touch. The small filet of baked fish was moist, tender and delicate, slightly blackened on the outside. Garnished with a few leaves of flat-leaf parsley, the fish was surrounded by soft sliced carrots that were supposed to be gingered, though I did not detect ginger flavor.
For both entree plates, the flavors were not as subtle as the appetizers. The flavor of pomegranate–a fruit native to the Caucasus mountains–dominated the fish. And the thin-grained rice, though cooked w saffron and tossed with almonds and pistachios, was dominated by one flavor: the perfume of orange slices and orange flower water. It was a little much, almost a dessert, though not sweet.
Still, it was enough for me to turn down the sweetest of the desserts: baghlava. Similar to the familiar Greek dessert, this is instead soaked in orange and lemon sugar syrup. It would have been my first choice if I weren't overwhelmed with orange from the rice. I instead chose the firnee, an Afghan pudding, which turned out to be similar to an Italian panne cotta, but infused with rose water and almonds, and topped with tiny crushed pistachios. Along with a pot of cardamom tea, it was perfect end to this filling meal.
Last year, we enjoyed the similar flavors of Marjan–kebabs and rice perfumed with safron and rose water. We think Marjan has an edge here, but both restaurants are worth at least one visit, not because some may consider them unique, but because they pull together so many diverse flavors. The aromatic fruit of the fertile land, the savory rices and tender meats, the East and the West all come together on your plate.