The welcome from Wali at Ariana II is extremely warm. It’s quite hard not to think of all the clichés of the famed generosity of Afghan hospitality at this relative newcomer to the Kilburn High Road. Ever since Time Out gave it a glowing review, it has piqued the interest of NW6ers so it was time for whampreviewers to give their verdict.
The menu is long, and grilled meats and aubergine feature prominently. We eagerly accepted the suggestion of sharing a variety of starters and very soon the table was full with bread, houmous, a Russian salad that tasted a lot better than it looked, an uneventful Afghan salad, some rather nice Ashak (vegetable-filled steamed dumplings) and – of course – some fried aubergine. A small dish of fiery sauce came too. “Does this go with anything in particular?” asked Hazel? “Everything – it goes with everything” beamed our host. And indeed it did, being hot enough to more or less kill any more subtle flavour.
Main courses arrived and there was much kerfuffle as starter plates and main courses fought for space on an increasingly cramped table. Service throughout was very friendly – our waitress in particular endeared herself to the table – but a slightly slicker system might result in less plate juggling by customers. It feels like a culture clash between the Afghan dastarkhan spread of food and the modern European desire to eat separate courses – as well as the physical constraints of a restaurant in Kilburn (one with very clean toilets as Jennifer pointed out).
The grilled meat main courses mostly came with rice either plain or served as a pilau (brown rice offered as an option) and a salad. My own dish was from the Afghan specials list. Muntu is another steamed dumpling dish, this time filled with a very spicy lamb mixture. It was really delicious – the spiced meat cutting through the mild sauce and yoghurt dressing – another dish where taste far exceeded presentation.
Verdicts on the various plates of grilled meat were generally positive although there was a sense of disappointment that the flavour of these dishes didn’t really stand out from what you might get at a decent kebab place even if the cooking was certainly better and more consistent: one chicken dish described as “surprisingly succulent”.
Matt reckoned that if they “sorted the salad out” his lamb shank dish would have been a really good meal, referring to the rather unexciting tomato lettuce and cucumber on his plate.
We didn’t order vegetable sides, but I think I would if going again – I would have liked something green with my dish certainly. None of us were vegetarians, but actually there is a reasonable selection of vegetarian food even if most are billed as side dishes.
We again took a selection of desserts – including a ras malai made by our waitress’s aunt and that Jayanti declared “exceptional” (having already said it was one of her favourites), some baklava and another yoghurt-based dessert. All were good.
Cardamon coffee was described as “really good” and there was much appreciaton for the tiny persian rug coasters for the mint tea teapots. It was time for the bill. It’s worth pointing out here that Ariana II is a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant. There is a decent wine shop two doors away though, so this is no great hardship but did have a big effect on the bill compared to previous reviews. So, including service but excluding wine we paid £18 each. There was still and sparkling bottled water on the table, which we drank but realised later we hadn’t been charged for – whether deliberately or not, I don’t know.
Overall, it was an enjoyable experience. I’m not sure Whether Ariana II has quite enough to lure West Hampsteadites down to the High Road just for the food. But, if you find yourself hungry in Kilburn, want something a bit different and like friendly service then this restaurant should definitely be on your shortlist.
Thanks to reviewers Jennifer, Hazel, Susan, Jayanti, Peter, Alex, Jon, and Matt