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The Best are Always Secret March 20, 2006

Posted by KG in Uncategorized.
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This is a copy of something I posted on donrockwell.com, my favorite DC board for all things fooding (as the Pakistanis would say). I thought some readers who don’t necessarily read Rockwell would be interested, and this also fills the dearth of food content this blog has experienced of late. Head nods to Dakota for sharing the acronym NQR with me.

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Would you believe that I had some of the finest Lebanese food I have ever had in, of all places, Islamabad, capitol of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?

Majlis, located in Islamabad’s F6/3 sector on Street 3 (sidenote: its like this city was designed by a computer. And not a superfast, sleek machine. I’m talking pre-Wang, vacuum tube even.) is very difficult to find. Its hidden away from all the commercial areas and crawling with security. Which makes sense, because its a haven for the cornucopia of diplomat types all over this city (even the North Koreans have a mission here. Not to mention the Northern Cypriots!). But basically, search for the big house surrounded by parked cars that looks way to busy to be a residence (there’s no sign — this place is basically a secret place. An open secret, but come on this is Pakistan.) The restaurant interior is quite attractive, boasting Raj-era styled opulent decor and some damn fine bathrooms. You have the option to sit outdoors in the garden — which is an attractive option during these months when the weather in the Margalla foothills is at its most beautiful.

Confused by the disconnect between your words for meze and what’s on the menu? That’s because here in the IRP very few things directly correspond to Western concepts (I’m reminded of a rather odd “Irish Stew” I had recently that was served on basmati rice of all things). It’s the land of not-quite-right. Lump that on to the fact that the Pakistanis have a rather liberal interpretation of spelling and grammar rules and you’ve got one confusing menu. No matter — just order one of everything except for the radish pickle (which was horribly horribly salty). The highlights were the dolmades (not dolmades on the menu — go by the descriptions), the babaganoush, the kibbeh (thankfully also called kibbeh in the Land of NQR), and the bread — not pita, but lavash. The dolmades and babaganoush were incredibly fresh and were significantly more flavorful than domestic versions I have had.

The main dishes — a variety of kabobs — are not what kabobs are served like in the States. Again, the bread is different, with more of a paratha-like texture and flavor. The dishes are heavily, heavily spiced externally without being excessively hot. I had their “special” kabob, a ground blend of lamb and beef served with roasted tomatoes. It wasn’t as delicious as the meze, but not too shabby. I would have liked more spice in the meat itself instead of atop the dish as an afterthought.

Like many high-end restaurants here in the IRP, Majlis has a rather interesting alcohol policy. Alcohol is technically illegal here, but foreigners and connected Pakistanis can obtain drinks through various means, some clandestine and some nominally so. If you want to drink with your meal, you can bring wine (wrapped and hidden so no one is offended) and furtively hand your bottle(s) to the waiter, who will return with the wine poured in a juice decanter. You’ll be handed wineglasses, and in the unlikely event that the police raid the establishment (about as likely as you can get here) the staff will claim you are just drinking non-alcoholic grape juice, a popular beverage here. Just don’t confuse the waiter with pairings, different wines, or frankly anything more than one bottle. I haven’t tried it myself, but I suspect you are asking for disaster.

There are a couple non-booze related downsides to Majlis. The major one is the service, which bordered on absolutely abysmal, even by Pakistan standards. Waiters forgot who received what dish, disappeared without refilling our water multiple times, and at one point I simply got up and grabbed spare napkins and cutlery myself. There’s also the fact that one is dining in Pakistan, but I won’t go into that much.

The upside? Seven of us ate a delicious meal — not a fantastic one, see above paragraph — with ten courses of meze and an entree each (and four large bottles of water) for 7000 rupees. The current exchange rate is going at around 60 rupees to the dollar. I leave it to you to do the math.

Did I like the meal simply because I am here, a zillion miles from reality? I discussed this with colleagues and have come to the conclusion that the answer is no. This food at Majlis was authentically good, not just good in the “I miss home” sort of way. Though this entry is largely written for posterity’s sake (I don’t have any realistic expectation DR.com readers will find themselves here, though one should never say never!), in the case that the unlikely happens, get a good driver and head over to Majlis. Be prepared to wait a bit, and feel free to break some of the rules of dining yourself — in the Land of NQR, you never know what you can get away with.

From a land far, far away, where I am being serenaded by crowing roosters, birdsong, and the call to morning prayer, I bid you adieu.

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