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by James Verde; Photo by Douglas Bovitt
Ariana: Journey to Foreign Flavors
700 Haddonfield-Berlin Road
(856) 784-1100

What do most of us know about the cuisine of Afghanistan? Better yet, what do most of us know about Afghanistan, period? Forget what you’ve heard on the news and read in the papers. It seems to melt away upon the first spoonful of aash, a bewitching spiced vegetable soup served at Ariana, an Afghan restaurant situated smack in the center of Voorhees’ Eagle Plaza.

Sequined Persian tunics tacked to the cafe’s walls dance and glitter, or maybe it’s just my eyes watering from the warm, husky heat of the crimson soup. Onions, carrots and peas mingle with curls of short, thin noodles in a tomato broth enriched with a swirl of yogurt. It’s one of the best soups I’ve ever eaten, deliriously delicious. I sop up the extra with a rectangle of freshly baked Afghan bread; it has the air pockets and springy chew of Italian focaccia, the thin brittle crust of a Vietnamese baguette and the smokiness of Indian naan.

Three years old, this Afghan gem is sister restaurant to the original Ariana in the Old City section of Philly. Voorhees might lack the hookah lounge the Chestnut Street location has, but it makes up for the omission with deep, soulful food that lingers in your brain.

Already I’m planning to go back for the aash soup. The aash-e-dal, a variation on that cup with the addition of yellow lentil, was not quite as transcendent but still very good, and still a fitting dunk for the fresh bread. Sambosas, the Afghan counterpart to Indian samosas, came four to an order, delicate turnovers filled with savory spiced potato and chickpeas. The flaky pastry triangles surrounded a cup of “Afghan sauce,” ubiquitous at Ariana and redolent of green chilies, garlic and mint. I dribbled a little over each, igniting a fire that burned slowly, both in mouth and in memory.

Nicknamed Afghan ravioli, the aashak dish brought steamed scallion-filled dumplings. The tender pasta packages were rolled so thin you could see the green of the onion through the translucent exteriors. Cool yogurt sauce quenched the aashak’s piquant onion flavor, while sautéed ground beef lent the dish some body. A sprinkling of fresh mint kept each bite feeling light and fresh.

The food at Ariana isn’t fancy or complicated. But the limited pallet of ingredients have bred a kind of forced excellence; bound by spatial and cultural limits—this isn’t Afghan fusion we’re talking here—Ariana has to work doubly hard to charm guests with their cooking.

The kitchen rises to the occasion every time, as does the genial front-of-the-house staff, which seems so grateful that anyone has come to dine at their restaurant at all. But unlike some of the big-box eateries in the area, there’s real food with real soul at Ariana.

This is not to say there’s not room for improvement. I’d have liked a little more spice in the chicken corma, chunks of chicken breast in a pleasant garlic/onion?/tomato gravy; compared to its Indian curry cousin of the same name, this felt a little timid. It’s the accompanying basmati rice, intensely fragrant and perfectly cooked, I really remember from this dish. The lamb kebab could have been more tender, though I loved the moist marinated chicken and the aromatic beef kofta; two skewers of all three proteins come on the Ariana combo, delicious washed down with an Afghan iced tea kissed with cardamom and lemon. Of course, you can also always BYO.

Don’t miss the yogurt shake for dessert. Ariana blends them up salty or sweet; as a finale, you obviously want the latter, laced with just enough rosewater to taste but not so much that it tastes like perfume. It’s the scent of a mysterious country, but one whose culinary traditions aren’t so unfamiliar once you get to know them. I can’t wait to get to know them better. Ariana earns a guaranteed return visit.

Photo: scallion-filled aashak, nicknamed Afghan ravioli

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (January, 2012).
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