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Why is Pt Chevalier such a dining-out desert? It's one of the hipper (and pricier) neighbourhoods in town, yet I'll be damned if I can find good food there.
I have enthused about Jiang Yi Hu Grill-lamb Shoulder next to KFC: its appetising options, which include lamb spine, lamb testicle, chicken gizzard and something called seasoning sea tangle, place it in the very vanguard of the nose-to-tail eating movement, but it's not destination dining, if you know what I mean.
Around the corner, a place called The Flaming House will do you a steak for $15, but I haven't had the nerve to try it, since I believe in the principle that you get what you pay for, and I don't want to eat a steak that thinks it's worth only $15.
Sages is good bog-standard Indian but Nomad seems more a boozer with snacks and pizzas than a restaurant these days. So the Samadi family, whipping up excellent and reasonably priced food in a dire eating-out precinct, are likely to get a warm welcome.
Their eponymous restaurant has been a long time coming. Co-owner Wali Samadi is the fifth of seven children of an Afghan refugee family that arrived here in 1985 after fleeing the Soviet occupation. Their hair-raising story (we're talking Mum and seven kids in the back of a ute crossing the mountains by night) is told in Neville Peat's 1986 book Flight from Afghanistan, a well-thumbed copy of which is on prominent display.
More than 30 years on, the Samadi whanau is well ensconced. Wali, who made a career in IT, opened this place in mid-January to "share something with Aucklanders - and what better way is there of sharing than with food?"
Samadi is small: two sunken tables in a room whose black walls are decorated with mandala-style patterns, and a few more conventional tables in an enclosed footpath space. Wali is at pains to point out that the place is kept afloat by the efforts of the entire family: his sister-in-law and her sister are the chefs; his South African-born wife Cindy is a welcoming and efficient waitress; a brother may get pressed into service to help out or drive across town for ingredients; and his mother, Golbibi, is the "quality assurance co-ordinator" as well as the inspiration for the dishes: everything on the menu is something that was served on the family table.
The only Afghan food I had eaten was a Kabuli palau, a fragrant dish of broth-soaked rice, topped with slow-cooked spicy lamb, almonds and raisins, which Miragha Sarwari served in his Avondale pizza shop Haji-Baba. But Samadi, as far as I can tell the only thoroughgoing Afghan restaurant in Auckland, takes things to a whole new level.
Pride of place on the menu is given to mantu, the Afghan version of the dumpling that is a staple from Mongolia to the Balkans. Samadi's mantu, stuffed with aromatic beef mince, are topped with yellow split peas and a yoghurt in which garlic and mint compete for top spot. Both mantu and aushak come in entree and main size. The latter, chive-stuffed, are ostensibly a vegetarian option, so presumably you can get them without the minced meat topping; perhaps being a vegetarian in Afghanistan means only that you don't have to shoot, skin and gut your own dinner.
Kabobs are kebabs by another name, skewers of grilled minced meat most of us know from their Indian iterations; qorma is another unfamiliar spelling of what Indians call korma, a neat linguistic reminder that northern Indian (Mughal) food came with its namesake emperors from Persia in the northeast, but the Samadi version is fragrant and aromatic rather than fiery and spicy.
An exacting assessment would point to a shortage of variety (yoghurt and mint proliferate as toppings, even on the vegetarian options of eggplant and pumpkin). And the naan bread would definitely benefit from grilling or at least heating, though I understand that is happening now. A liquor licence is still pending.
But Samadi works because its gets the spirit right: simple, honest food is served with warmth and generosity, and our quartet, hoovering up pretty much everything on the menu spent less than $170. If you go, make a point of ordering the dogh - a sour and salty yoghurt and cucumber drink, similar to Turkish ayran. It will transport you to another world, which is kind of what Samadi does.
Small plates $8-$16; large plates $24-$28; sides $3-$4; desserts $3-$6
VERDICT: Traditional Afghan food brightens up a dire eating-out precinct.