In Kansas City's highly competitive restaurant community, it's not enough to offer Afghan-style meat kebabs and aush, a dill-scented noodle soup with yogurt, beans and chickpeas. You need a Denver omelet, too.
The owners behind Ariana, the metro's first Afghan restaurant, are hedging their bets and serving daal and American eggs, hummus and hotcakes. It's not the kind of menu you see every day. But Ariana isn't a typical venue, either. For one thing, the space itself is a former Waid's and nearly as large as the Khyber Pass. The two dining rooms in the building could easily contain a soccer field with room left over for a helicopter landing pad. With that many seats to fill, why limit the menu?
The restaurant's signature cuisine is that of Afghanistan, which in turn shows the culinary influences of Turkey, Central Asia and the Middle East. But there really is a Denver omelet on the menu at Ariana, and it's far from the only American dish left over from Waid's, where solidly unexciting home-style cooking (liver and onions, fried chicken, cream pies) remained long after S&H Green Stamps bit the dust. Waid's and its ilk may have grown tired and passé down the decades, but frequenters of the 15 diner-style restaurants founded by former Navy cook Bob Waid in 1953 were nothing if not loyal. So now that the dynasty's last rampart has fallen, partisans must decide whether the hulking building's new occupant — the two-month-old Ariana — is for them.
This isn't the first time that a former Waid's has been retrofitted with ethnic food in mind. The old Waid's at 3063 Southwest Boulevard is now Poco's on the Boulevard, which serves Mexican dishes and a select number of familiar Waid's favorites, mostly from the breakfast menu. But are the people who ache in the morning for the breakfast combo known as "The Quickie" (which you can still have at Ariana) willing to come back in the evening for a plate of badenjan borani (sautéed eggplant) or chickpeas korma?
According to one of the servers at Ariana — a Waid's veteran named Elise, who worked for nearly a decade at the now-razed Prairie Village Waid's — some minds have already been made up. On a recent Sunday morning, she lamented that the regular breakfast eaters from the Waid's days didn't seem to know that they could still find the delicately crispy malted waffle. (This is one of the few breakfast joints in the city that serves a good waffle, one that's neither rubbery nor hard as concrete.) Generous omelet combos remain, too, with hash browns and toast. And Elise continues to fuss over her customers like a concerned relative. ("Would you like some vegetables with your burger?" she asked me. Yes, I told her — french fries.)
Ariana also makes up buffet tables for breakfast and lunch, and it's along the latter's line that you start finding Afghan dishes, such as chicken korma and various kebabs. It's a simple enough way for diners to try several different Afghan options at once, but a dinner version has already been abandoned. "Our customers just weren't interested in it at night," another server told me. "They're willing to try new things but not on a buffet."
I've eaten dinner twice at Ariana, and a few of the old Waid's regulars look to be coming back to the restaurant. But they're not necessarily ordering the Afghan dishes, opting instead for the familiar: fried-chicken tenders or the "Pub Burger," topped with American cheese. (It's a fine, hefty burger, by the way, but no matter how you order it, it seems to always come out medium well.)
They're missing out on some very good Afghan dishes, though the preparation can be inconsistent. The naan is Exhibit A. It helps to know that this isn't the bread that comes out of an Indian tandoori oven — Afghan naan is denser and cut into squares — but even so, the version here can be tasty or too chewy, depending on the night.
The chicken korma at Ariana bears only a passing resemblance to the dish of the same name in most Indian restaurants, though both call for braised poultry. On my first visit to Ariana, the dish — in a spicy, oily sauce — was made with chunks of chicken breast; on the second visit, it was made with chicken drumettes.
There are five kebab choices, including a flavorful (if slightly chewy) plate of marinated lamb chunks sided with a towering pile of white rice. The oddball option here is the chapli kebab, a trio of burger-sized minced-beef patties dominated by a punchy combination of fiery green chilies, coriander and cumin. If the kitchen stops turning the meat into leather, this dish could be a winner.
My favorite item here so far is the karayee, made with either beef or pork and given distinctive but not overpowering spice by garlic, ginger and chilies. (It's also called karahi in Pakistan, and named for the cooking utensil, a woklike pot.) It's damn tasty, but it's better when you order it with more heat. I also made a satisfying meal out of some steamed mantu dumplings: puffy little savory purses stuffed with chopped beef and onions, and swimming in both a deftly seasoned broth and a runny yogurt sauce.
In an act of relative defiance, Ariana serves only Afghan desserts, which are uncomplicated and enjoyable: a rice pudding, a sweet bread called rote, and a rose-scented milk pudding called firni. (Waid's refrigerated pie case is still at the front of the dining room, but it's sadly empty.) Ariana doesn't have a liquor license yet ("We're working on that," one of the owners told me) but serves soft drinks, fruit juices and chai tea. There's strong coffee, too, which is just the ticket on a cold morning with a Louisiana omelet smothered in hot sauce — or at night, with that pistachio-dusted, gently multicultural rice pudding.