Review: Barg Continental Restaurant in St. Louis
On a recent Saturday night when venturing out sans reservation should have been foolhardy, Kabul-born Ameen Akbarzada was a one-man show playing to a near-empty house at Barg Continental Restaurant in St. Louis Hills.
The night had all the components of a negative review: a large, harshly lit dining room almost devoid of diners, several televisions silently playing music videos and sports and a blaring soundtrack doing its best to fill the room. But then the food arrived.
I still think about Barg’s ethereal qabeli palau (also spelled kabuli palaw), Afghanistan’s national dish consisting of a hulking, tender, braised lamb shank redolent of sweet and warm spices hidden in a fluffy mound of long-grain basmati rice pilaf, with shining raisins and lightly caramelized shredded carrots. It’s an entree perfect for winter but will be just as crave-worthy come summer.
Rarely does something as common as rice warrant its own paragraph, but nearly everything at Barg is built around it. The Afghan chicken biryani (also spelled beriani) has turmeric-tinged rice aggressively spiced with pepper, clove and cardamom and stir-fried with chickpeas serving as a fluffy bed for two chicken thighs. Even the basic rice accompanying other dishes had a subtle, nutty flavor laced with warm spices.
Barg (Dari for leaf) is situated on Hampton Avenue next to Yapi (a Bosnian sub shop) and a hardware store in the old Tumo’s Ristorante space, which most recently housed MK’s Asian Persuasion. Before that it was Oasis Shisha Lounge, an Afghan hookah restaurant. The former stage is now an elevated communal lounge area outfitted with comfy cushions. A long bar spans the length of the large, open room and, although no alcohol is served, Akbarzada provides wine glasses if you want to BYOB.
On another prime-time Saturday night, the energetic Akbarzada, who looks more like a rapper or model with his straight-billed Nike Jumpman cap and piercing green eyes, was again our host, cook, server and busboy. He opened Barg last spring with longtime friend Zach Zabih, who ran the kitchen with chef Khan eq Abdul. But by the fall, both partners had left to pursue other businesses, leaving Akbarzada sole owner of St. Louis’ second Afghan restaurant.
Sure, that causes little missteps (like a sambosa appetizer – four deep-fried pastriesfilled with an herby mixture of potato and green onion – arriving after an entree) and annoyances (like receiving two conflicting menus, one showing several dishes and prices scratched out or handwritten and one with photos of dishes not listed on the other menu or with different spellings).
Then, the food arrived again. Dipping those crispy sambosas in a vivid green, cilantro-packed chutney melted away any aggravation.
Land-locked Afghanistan sits at a crossroads of civilizations, sharing culinary influences from Iran, Pakistan, India and even China. Due to marauding invaders (thanks, Ottoman Empire!), it’s also mixed with the indelible influence of Turkish and Greek cuisines. The East-meets-West mosaic is probably why we often lump Afghan food into tidy, homogenous categories of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean – kebabs, rice, flatbread and the like.
And you can indeed get excellent kebabs at Barg, especially if you order the Emperor Platter: a huge, square plate loaded with rice and four juicy, tender kebabs including chargrilled, lemony chicken, two koobideh (spiced ground beef) and delicately seasoned cubes of lamb.
But where was the spicy, stir-fried eggplant known as bonjan boorani or the grilled tomatoes advertised on the menu? It seems they were only included on one of the menus. It can be expensive to update and reprint, but customers shouldn’t have to play “one of these things is unlike the other.”
Whichever menu you’re granted, be sure to order the mantu – delicious, delicate ravioli-like dumplings loosely packed with seasoned ground beef and onions made faintly sweet as they steam. They’re barely pinched at top, so the sheer wrappers spread out on the plate like lasagna. Strewn with more ground beef, dollops of split pea sauce and garlicky yogurt that cools and punches at once, this hearty entree is best eaten with a spoon.
It’s not unusual for Afghan restaurants to serve a few Indian and Pakistani dishes, but Barg’s tikka masala can be bypassed. Other disappointments included a lack of bolani, traditional Afghan stuffed bread, during both visits.
Working alone has to limit what Akbarzada can do in the kitchen. That should change. A restaurant as large as Barg serving specialty cuisine needs a steady flow of diners, if for no other reason than to convey the buzzy, convivial atmosphere that makes dining out inviting and fun. Don’t wait for patio weather – go now, just call ahead and bring a few friends.
Where // 6417 Hampton Ave., St. Louis, 314.338.1234, Facebook: Barg Continental Restaurant
Don’t Miss Dishes // Lamb shank qabeli palau, mantu
Vibe // A large room that can feel lonely when not busy
Entree Prices // $6 to $30
When // Daily – noon to 10 p.m.
Michael Renner is a longtime contributor and critic at Sauce Magazine.
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