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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Maza serves Afghan food to campus-area diners

When the world's great cuisines are considered, Afghanistan rarely comes to mind. Nevertheless, Madisonians have been enjoying Afghani specialties since 1990, when Ghafoor Zafari opened Kabul in the 500 block of State Street. His kebab, couscous, steamed dumplings and chicken dishes have long been favorites of the campus crowd, not to mention his many vegetarian specialties, all offered at modest prices. Kabul is a Madison icon.

The question now is whether State Street is ready for another Afghani restaurant. And not just another, but one right across the street from Kabul, and also run by a Zafari. This model might work for Starbucks, but I'm not sure about Afghan food.

Maza opened several months ago in the space vacated by Saz. It is run by Ghafoor's son, Nasima Zafari, who teamed up with Shekeba Samadzada, a longtime cook at Kabul. The two have put together a menu they describe as "traditional and contemporary Afghan cuisine with a modern flair." Whereas Ghafoor incorporates other Mediterranean cuisines at Kabul, Maza strives to be more purely Afghani in its approach.

In general, Afghan cuisine is influenced by traditions of Persia, Greece, Mongolia and India, employing lots of wheat, barley and rice, both beef and lamb, fresh vegetables, plenty of yogurt and a heady array of spices (saffron, cinnamon, cardamom), all of which is nicely mixed into Maza's menu.

On a recent visit, four of us began with a basket of warm nan, the same flat bread we have come to love at Kabul. We dipped the bread into olive oil. It was a warm night, so as we nibbled we drank cold beer - Efes from Turkey, Casablanca from Morocco, Kingfisher from India and Capital Amber from Middleton. The short wine list includes vintages from California, Chile, Argentina and Turkey.

We split two appetizers. The sambosa is a crispy fried dumpling filled with ground beef, onion, cilantro and chickpeas served with a yogurt sauce. And burani badenjan was a soupy but tasty mixture of eggplant with herbs, onion, tomato and garlic sauce, again with yogurt. This one had a little spicy kick to it, very pleasant.

Among entrees, lamb kabuli palow featured tender and moist chunks of lamb cooked with onions and served over brown basmati rice with carrots, raisins and almonds. A lamb kebab was marinated in yogurt garlic sauce and served with mixed vegetables over brown basmati rice. Again, the lamb was tender, but this dish was a little oversalted for my taste.

My murgh burani badenjan was delightful, chicken breast and thigh sautéed to tender perfection with fresh eggplant, cooked with herbs, onion, tomato and garlic, served over white basmati rice. Our fourth member had beef korma, very tender chunks of beef cooked with yellow split peas in a tomato sauce, served over white basmati rice. (Basmati is an Indian long-grain rice known for its nutty flavor. Basmati is a Hindi word meaning "queen of fragrance." And while we're at it, "maza" is the Farsi word for "delicious.")

Other interesting-looking entrees include kofta (Afghani meatballs), lamb curry and sabzi chalow: spinach and potatoes cooked with green onion, cilantro, garlic and spices.

Entrees are served with soup or salad, and of the two I would go for the former, a vegetable soup, tomato-based, with noodles, beans, and a dollop of sour cream. The salad is a lackluster lettuce affair, unaided by what appears to be a honey and balsamic vinegar dressing.

We didn't get a chance to try dessert, but next time might try baghlawa, an Afghani version of Greek baklava. There are also Afghan teas and Turkish coffee.

The décor at Maza has not changed much from the days of Saz - seating is in one long room with dim lighting and sparse decoration. Afghani music adds to the atmosphere. There is table service (there was none at Saz) and a small sidewalk seating area for pleasant summertime dining among the Madison Metro buses.

I hope Maza thrives, but if our Tuesday night experience is any indication, there might be doubts. We were the only diners in the place. And I do hope that the dying petunias in the dry sidewalk planters aren't an omen.

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