The adjectives "relaxed" and "Afghan" don't often appear in the same sentence, but Nolu's Cafe, in Abu Dhabi's fast-growing Al Bandar area near Etihad Plaza, is one place where the two words go together admirably.
The extra ingredient that makes the recipe work is a generous dollop of California, both on the menu and in the ambience of this laid-back breakfast, lunch and dinner place. The owner-chef Marjon Ajami began building her menu with a few of her mother's Afghan recipes and then added sandwiches, salads, burgers, kebabs, pastas and more.
Nestled near a Spinneys in an appealing waterside retail hollow among shiny new residential blocks, this stylish suburban restaurant can be a little hard to find from the motorway. But once you're there, you will find a main room dominated by a window wall overlooking a pleasing canal vista.
Large tables testify that this is a place for the neighbourhood's families and for convivial groups; tall stools at a window-side counter welcome solo diners. High ceilings, soothing greens and browns, a kitchen behind glass, contemporary decor, hearty portions, the diverse clientele, pop music from several continents and a child-friendly staff combine to make the place feel downright laid-back Californian.
In truth, the recognisable Afghan influence is mainly limited to the appetisers, offered as "small and shareable platters" but actually big (and pricey) enough to be main courses, or nearly.
Borani kadoo, large chunks of sautéed squash, arrived perfectly al dente. Squash is a homely vegetable and not everyone's favourite, but this dish was elevated to must-remember-for-next-time status by its yogurt sauce, enlivened with saffron, cardamom and dried mint.
Mantoo, beef-and-onion dumplings with ground coriander, baked in a mild yogurt sauce and topped with lentils – not the advertised ground beef – would certainly qualify as Afghan comfort food. Bolani proved to be the vegetarian twin of Lebanese arayes, wedges of a thin, grilled flatbread sandwich filled with potato, spring onions and gentle spices. This dish got a boost from the coriander-jalapeño-vinegar chutney provided on the side.
While all three appetisers were delectable, our main dishes were slightly less interesting. My lamb sandwich seemed like a good idea when I ordered it. The lamb proved tasty, the baguette was commendable, the tomato and lettuce were fresh and the mixed greens side salad came with a tangy, home-made ranch dressing. However, the other ingredients rather overpowered the taste of the lamb.
A grilled-vegetable ciabatta sandwich, enhanced with sun-dried tomato paste, was generously filled and simple without being boring. Chapli kebabs, an Afghan-style main dish of two big flat beef patties with green onion and jalapeño diced in, were flavour-packed, though a little salty and slightly dry, but the mild yogurt sauce remedied those minor faults. The brown long-grain Afghan rice, a famous dish here, was a fine accompaniment.
Desserts, not mentioned on the menu, are worth asking about; we were offered a choice of four homemade cakes. The star was undoubtedly the toffee-date one, served warm. A pudding-like cake, it had a light crumb despite its moistness and a delightful, if not low-calorie, butter-caramel sauce.
The cheesecake was delicious, surprisingly light, almost mousse-like and not cloying, as so many are. The chocolate cake was honest, if predictable.
Skip the Dh22 bottle of water if you're trying the excellent fruit-juice blends or smoothies.
Service throughout was friendly, unhurried but efficient, except that our main dishes arrived before we had finished those get-the-last-drop-of-sauce starters.
Nolu's Cafe, Al Bandar, Abu Dhabi is open from Saturday to Wednesday, 8am to 10pm and Thursday and Friday, 8am to 11pm. A meal for two at Nolu's Cafe (www.noluscafe.com) costs Dh356. For reservations, call 02 557 9500 or email email@example.com. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito