Restaurant Review: Zarak offers Afghan cuisine, modernized for Main Street

Opinion: Zarak is the younger sister restaurant to Afghan Kitchen in Surrey, a more modern take on Main Street in Vancouver.

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Zarak

Or: 2102 Main Street, Vancouver

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When: Dinners, Wednesday to Sunday; the brunch menu will start soon

Information: 604-318-3456; zarakvancouver.com

As our country seems to be in the throes of a nervous breakdown, I suggest you visit Zarak for a moment of sanity and hospitality.

It is the sister restaurant of Afghan Kitchen in Surrey, which was visited by John Catucci of Food Network last year and voted one of the 100 best restaurants in Canada by Open Table. This hip, modern take on Main Street, part of a new condo development, has been rocking it since it opened last December, and the appeal isn’t just the Afghan-inspired food and cocktails — you’ll never Don’t land on Main Street without cocktails – it’s also famous Afghan hospitality where guests are treated like gold.

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In fact, Zarak translates to “gold” and gold flakes are incorporated inside the restaurant.

“It’s a beacon of hope for Afghanistan,” says partner and managing director Hassib Sarwari. “Despite its political turmoil, there can be beauty.”

The interior takes on the hues of the wooden and earthen houses of Afghanistan and the waiters, all friendly and welcoming, wear vests made of distinctive Afghan textiles.

Sarwari’s family fled when the Taliban first seized power in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago. His parents and four young boys fled to Pakistan.

“My dad had a lot of businesses and was well known. We spoke a Persian dialect and the Taliban were definitely looking for such people. We packed backpacks and ran away and left everything behind. Literally,” he says.

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Her father died of a heart attack at age 39, likely brought on by the trauma. And just like that, Sarwari became the breadwinner at 17, working two jobs while going to school after the family moved to Canada in 2003.

“When you have the responsibility of taking care of the whole family, you have no choice but to fail. It has to work,” he said. “My brothers were young but I remember every second of my life with dad. Sometimes I’m cursed to have a good memory.

Since childhood, he always wanted to run a restaurant. In Canada, his mother showed her love by cooking for them.

Customers at Zarak's bar.
Customers at Zarak’s bar. Photo by Mia Stainsby /PNG

“Mom’s passion for cooking was the reason behind everything I’ve done so far. It was his way of keeping his family close. We would come home from school for her meals and see her love.

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One brother now cooks and develops recipes with her and another runs the Surrey restaurant. A friend, Winnie Sun, has joined the family business and is the source of a very interesting Afghan-themed cocktail list.

Sarwari says her mother’s instinct is to be generous and to fill the plates to the brim.

“When we started, she wouldn’t send a plate if she wasn’t full. It took him a while to realize it was a commercial kitchen,” he says.

Portions are always generous, considering the soaring food prices.

Afghanistan sits at the intersection of the Silk Road trade routes and food from the Far East, India, Persia and the Mediterranean has crept into the kitchen. You’ll find tasty crossroads, for example, in the popular dumpling dishes ($13 to $21, depending on size). Mantu, a steamed wonton dumpling with a spicy beef filling, is served with yellow dal and chaka, a thick yoghurt. Aushak is filled with leeks, chives and spinach, and served with tomato sauce. The spicy aushak contains cabbage, carrots and bean sprouts, and comes with lubya, a red bean curry.

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Bolani ($14 or $20) is a large pancake-like fried flatbread with potato filling and served with chutney. Don’t miss this tasty treat.

I think mom hit it off with the shoulder of lamb ($27) – it’s a hungry boy’s plate with a thick slice of lamb, good long grain rice and a bean chili. The lamb is first cooked in a pressure cooker until tender, then slowly roasted until brown and crispy.

I asked about the fluffy and tasty rice.

“It has to be the most complex dish in the kitchen,” says Sarwari. “It’s a long process and it has a lot to do with the spices Mom mixes in for aroma and taste.”

A lamb shank ($27) is served with salad and kachaloo, or slow-roasted potatoes. The shank is braised in a spicy vegetable puree made with peppers, onions, celery, tomatoes and garlic, which helps tenderize the meat and soften the game of the lamb.

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Pink cardamom ice cream.
Pink cardamom ice cream. Photo by Mia Stainsby /PNG

And there are kebabs – Triple A sirloin, chicken breast and lamb – served with rice or naan ($19 to $21). They are grilled on a charcoal grill specially designed for skewers to distribute the heat evenly while lifting the meat above the heat.

“We’ve tried so many broiler chickens,” Sarwari says.

The rose water and cardamom ice cream will take you to a beautiful place.

“Growing up, there weren’t many ice creams, only this one. When I wanted to open a restaurant, I said I must have this ice cream,” says Sarwari.

He returned to Afghanistan in peacetime and visited glaciers in three towns.

“I finally found the rose and cardamom ice cream that I loved and they gave me the recipe.”

A coat of cream, poured over ice, hardens with pistachios and other nuts. A big scoop is for two, “but if mum serves it, it’s two scoops,” laughs Sarwari.

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There are plans to add a brunch menu and pastry chef Daniel Munoz (Viva Bakery, Bench Bakehouse, AnnaLena) will be hired as a consultant for this – he previously worked on most of the desserts.

Sun, a self-taught mixologist, creates fun, eclectic and delicious cocktails with ingredients like mint, cardamom, fig, date, rose water, saffron and pomegranate. There’s also a solid selection of local craft beers and an extensive wine list.

Visiting the tables, you can see that Sarwari is a happy man, sharing love and beauty born out of turmoil.

“It’s absolutely a dream come true. Sometimes it’s 20 hour days, but I couldn’t dream of a better life, the satisfaction of having family around me.

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