The new edition for Saboor Zarari is the most satisfying yet, pulling together European techniques, Afghan flavors, and Mediterranean ingredients.
Saboor Zafari is standing in the open kitchen of his Park Street restaurant, stock-still, almost statue-like with his bald pate and neatly trimmed mustache and soul patch. Wearing a stylish white T and looking out over the counter through round spectacles, he’s the image of stoicism. He could be contemplating the ingredients of a house-made chutney or marinade, taking in the golden glow the setting sun casts through west-facing windows into the sleek but not overly designed interior, or reflecting on the long and bumpy road he’s traveled to this, the third incarnation of Angela’s in Alameda.
As diners, we have our own considerations. We might return to a restaurant over and over again because we know the kitchen prepares a certain favorite dish or two with remarkable consistency. Or, maybe we become regulars because even though we don’t care what’s on the menu any given night, we are confidant that anything the chef comes up with is going to be great. I suspect that Angela’s Kitchen, which opened last fall in this new location across the parking lot from the Alameda Marketplace, is an Island City favorite for both reasons. That is to say, it is both menu-driven and chef-driven.
Zafari and his wife, Maria, have been serving much the same fare for the better part of 15 years, ever since they opened their first Angela’s in Marina Village shopping center near the Posey Tuba. Zafari’s cuisine combines the flavors of his homeland, Afghanistan, with classical European techniques and a variety of Mediterranean, notably Italian, ingredients. He became a chef after coming to the United States from Afghanistan in 1977 on a family visit, staying after all hell broke loose back home, and learning how to cook both on his own and in a French restaurant that he and his brother bought in Wisconsin. At the original Angela’s, named for his daughter, Zafari quickly built a local reputation for such signature dishes as duck strudel, aushak (a pan-fried ravioli-like dumpling), and lamb salad, and for his involvement in community projects and fundraisers.
In 2009, in partnership with vintner Kent Rosenblum, and with backing investors, Zafari launched the grand but ultimately bedeviled Angela’s Bistro & Bar next to the then-recently remodeled Alameda Theatre and Cineplex. Perhaps it was the scale—4,500 square feet, a full bar, an expanded fine-dining menu—that doomed the ambitious enterprise. Zafari’s luck turned south again in 2014 when an arson fire gutted the restaurant he was just about to open on Park Street, across from the current location.
The new edition is the most satisfying yet. The space is minimalist in aesthetic but warm and, thanks to a friendly staff, welcoming. Our waiter on our first dinner visit, Laurent, added bits of theatrics and humor to his service, without the annoyance that comes with trying too hard or fronting a rote geniality. And he wasn’t shy about making suggestions when we had a hard time making up our minds. He guided me to the lamb salad, which was where I wanted to be guided, even though I was contemplating the braised lamb shank ragu. He countered Robin’s aversion to lamb by bringing her a taste of the meat sauce that could accompany the aushak if you don’t opt for the roasted tomato sauce. Robin ordered the latter and then asked for a portion of the non-gamey ground lamb version as well.
Before we got to the mains, Robin savored a beautiful roasted beet salad, and I dug into the crisp, delicate pastry tissues of the decadent duck strudel, not something you identify with Afghan cuisine, but something you’ll forever conjure in connection with Zafari once you’ve tasted the earthy filling of duck confit, rice, and mushrooms, and the syrupy pool of orange, pomegranate, and butter reduction.
Both entrées looked gorgeous and tasted even better. The aushak, resembling skillet-browned won tons, were arranged in a pinwheel on a bed of Greek yogurt, with the herb-garnished sauce in the middle, like the plump center of a sunflower. The crisped and chewy pillows of dough were stuffed with leek and spinach that retained their bright green flavors. The lamb salad soared above my expectations: six chunks of medium-rare skewer-grilled meat were mildly spiced, ideally tender, and shared space in the pile of lemon-vinaigrette-dressed greens with roasted onion, cauliflower, green beans, and pattypan squash. A large dollop of spiced yogurt made for cool and tasty dipping.
Zafari’s signature duck strudel.
On a second visit, with an Alamedan friend who’s never experienced Zafari’s cooking, we shared a mazza platter that is much more than enough for two people, with three fresh, hefty, and distinct dips—eggplant, red pepper, artichoke—flanked by slices of house-made bread, a focaccia/flatbread hybrid, and crunchy pickled root vegetables for dipping. Although it was a warm summer evening, Greg and I both chose stew-like entrées that will be especially inviting come winter. He ordered the eggplant-and-tomato-based ratatouille, ladled over polenta cake, enlivened with big scoops of goat cheese and cilantro chutney, and bound with a pomegranate glaze. I indulged in the braised lamb ragu I’d previously foregone—memorably tender chunks of falling-apart lamb flowing with mushrooms and spinach like lava over a lumpy hillock of mashed potatoes. Both dishes were the epitome of elevated comfort food—hearty, rich, and sophisticated. They tasted like you could count on them tasting this way again.
Mediterranean. 1640 Park St. Alameda, 510-263-8788. Starters, soups, salads, small plates $7-$11, entrées, including sandwiches and kabobs $9-$21, desserts $7-$10, wine $9-$15 by the glass, $22–$92 bottle. Serves lunch, Tue.-Sun. 11:45 a.m-2:30 p.m., dinner Tue.-Thu. 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 5 p.m.-9 p.m. http://angelas2go.com. CC-$$-$$$$
Published online on Sept. 23, 2016 at 8 a.m.