This article is also published by the Financial Times.
As the South African-born osteopath was about to apply painful pressure to my lower back in an ultimately successful endeavour to reunite it with the rest of my body, I explained why I had arrived late.
It wasn’t cowardice, I assured her, rather that I was caught up in what is now a major weekly event in London, albeit one I had not witnessed before. My bus skirted Regent’s Park at lunchtime just as crowds were streaming out of the lunchtime prayers at the mosque to head back to their offices, and major traffic congestion ensued.
There was now a hint of sympathy in my osteopath’s voice, but not for me. ‘That’s what I most relish as I cycle around London’, she explained, ‘there are so many different nationalities living here that it almost feels as though you don’t have to leave London to travel the world.’
Further manipulation struck another chord. I have long believed that restaurants are the most immediate, convenient and least expensive form of travel. But on this occasion, perhaps spurred on by the pain, my thought process went into reverse: which London restaurants would take me to those countries I wish I had visited long ago but which today are simply too risky to contemplate?
Iran and Afghanistan sprang immediately to mind and I was able to enjoy windows into both countries via great-value meals at, respectively, Colbeh, just off the Edgware Road, and Ariana II in Kilburn, whose original branch opened in New York in 1986.
These two restaurants share certain features: long, narrow dining rooms with basic but comfortable furniture; a BYO wine policy; off-licences close by; no corkage charges but service that includes the prompt supply of clean glasses and corkscrews; and a nonchalant flexibility among the male waiting staff who swiftly don motorcycle helmets and mount the scooters parked outside to deliver the takeaway orders that are a critical part of their business.
Colbeh strikes an authentically Middle Eastern note for several different reasons. Nearby there is a row of cafes outside which men are smoking their hookahs, while seemingly every young woman walking past wearing a hijab is also carrying a bulging Primark bag. Round the corner is an armed policeman guarding the home of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. And, far more appetisingly, right inside the restaurant’s front door a mosaic clay oven bakes the naan (picture taken from the restaurant’s website), a style of bread that originated in Iran before spreading to give so much pleasure to the rest of the world.
The immediate warmth generated by this oven also made me realise that this set up is the original ‘open kitchen’. A sense of drama was added on our second visit as the waiter in charge of the oven put on his jacket and walked out, apparently in a fit of pique with his colleagues. Another promptly took his place and delivered twice as much naan as we had ordered just as our colourful first courses arrived.
These comprised paneer sabzi, a plate of mint, spring onion, tarragon, walnuts and sliced radishes alongside rectangles of Iranian feta that was creamier and far less acidic than any other I have tasted; kashk-e-bademjan, a dip of hot, fried aubergine then mixed with smoky whey and walnuts, for which torn pieces of naan form an excellent conveyance; and mast-o-khiar, a bowl of strained yoghurt with sliced cucumber. The majority of the 30 main courses that follow are variations on marinated chicken and lamb (with only two fish dishes and one potential vegetarian main course) that is extremely tender and served in such generous portions that I have never left here without taking away leftovers sufficient for another whole meal. The white rice topped with yellow saffron is equally good.
Colbeh, which takes its name from the Farsi word for cottage or cabin, derives part of its charm from prints and photos of Iran from a bygone era. At Ariana II, whose name derives from Aria, the original name for Afghanistan, the sense of being abroad rather than in Kilburn, traditionally Irish but today with an increasing number of shops offering halal meat, comes from haunting music and a large tapestry on one wall of one man leading another on the back of a camel. (Photo above © Charlie Bubby/FT.)
Aside from a variety of grilled lamb and chicken with must khiar, the Afghan interpretation of the yoghurt and cucumber dip, various meals at Ariana II, only a stone’s throw from the invariably engaging Tricycle Theatre, have introduced me to two particularly memorable Afghan dishes.
The first is aushak, a first course of steamed dumplings filled with leeks, topped with a ground meat sauce that contains lentils with yoghurt and dried mint to give it extra flare. The second wasfirnee, a pudding made from milk thickened with cornstarch and cardamom then topped with almonds and pistachios, a dish that I subsequently learnt originated in Iran.
But the star of Ariana II is undoubtedly Samira, the youngest member of the family to run this restaurant. With her sparkling eyes under a chadar, an Afghan headscarf, she extends the warm sense of welcome that Afghanistan and Iran were once renowned for.
Colbeh 6 Porchester Place, London W2 2BS; tel +44 (0)20 7706 4888
Ariana II 241 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7JN; tel +44 (0)203 490 6709
Both open 7 days for lunch and dinner. £20-£25 for three courses.
Ariana 787 9th Avenue between 52nd and 53rd St, NY 10019; tel +1 (212) 262 2323