The Survival Guide to Kabul©

Published internationally in July 2003 as Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide.

First published in Kabul in September 2002 as a pamphlet.

 

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Elbow Room Restaurant and Bar

April 30 2004

 

079 35 2538/070 254432
elbowroom_kabul@hotmail.com

 

Located at the bottom of the lane between the Chinese Embassy and the main UNDP Compound on Foreign Affairs Ministry road.

 

 

 

 

Elbow Room: cocktails, club steaks and security clearance at Kabul’s newest, coolest and safest venue.


Walking into the Elbow Room Restaurant and Bar for the first time is a revelation for anyone living in
Kabul. This latest haunt for sensation-hungry expats is hidden away at the bottom of a long, narrow alley, flanked by high walls next to the Chinese Embassy.

Soho has come to Kabul,” marvelled one amazed diner as she ducks into a small door at the end of the alley. Sure enough, going through that door is an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. Less precipitous than a rabbit hole, the entrance to the Elbow Room is nonetheless a portal to an incongruous new world. The dusty, monochrome of Kabul is left behind as revellers and diners enter a spacious compound full of colour, music and light.

A welcoming entrance is decorated in sea greens and leads into a bright, spacious bar area of stools and high tables where the best cocktails in Kabul are served. Prices start at $5, and the glory-halleluiah taste of the Long Island Iced Tea quenches even the most parched ex-pat’s thirst. The sugary Cosmopolitans still need perfecting and the Martinis have been known to be less than dry, but the Margaritas are superb. 

Frosty-cold canned beer costs $3 and bottles are $4. A Guinness fetches $5. There are also several types of wine listed as well as chilled champagne (Moet) in the fridge for special occasions, along with the usual line-up of spirits.

The British owners of Elbow Room, Jamie Adamson and Gareth Edwards, have spent a year renovating and decorating the premises. They readily admit the project wouldn’t have been possible had they not found a discreet, secure location.

“This property backs on to [Afghanistan’s President Hamid] Karzai’s palace grounds,” says Jamie. “It’s a very safe location. As soon as we saw it we knew it had great potential. We wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic about the idea, had we not found this site. “

To start the venture, the pair sold their homes back in the UK. They say they aren’t daunted by the unique difficulties of setting up a business in Kabul.

“We enjoy the challenge. It has been tough getting the supplies,” admits Jamie.

“Most of the furniture for the restaurant and kitchen appliances had to be purchased in Pakistan and the bureaucracy involved in setting up has been an eye-opener,” he says, adding, “However, our aim is to get people out of their guest houses and give them somewhere to meet, eat and have a social drink after work, to relax and have fun.”

The crowded bar and restaurant are noisy proof of the success of this vision.  Lurking beyond the bar, however, is the first false note in the place. An over-lit lounge area complete with tacky, velvet plush, brown sofas caters stoutly to lovers of Kabul kitsch. In fairness, they are comfortable to sink into, but the area could definitely do with being a bit darker to create a better atmosphere.

From the lounge, diners step up to a spacious restaurant area, with 16 tables covered with clean, white linen table cloths and napkins. A lower-level room runs alongside ceiling-to-floor windows, overlooking a small lawn boasting sporadic clumps of flowers and fledgling bushes.

While savouring a tangy Margarita or two, diners can chose from a menu that offers simple international cuisine that includes a choice for vegetarians (the Vegetarian Caribbean Chilli with baby corn, carrots and mixed beans in coconut, pineapple and tomato sauce, $14, was delicious).

The $8-salads include a classic Greek salad with feta cheese, black olives, tomatoes, onions cucumbers, but unfortunately they lace it with boring iceberg lettuce. A better choice is the Elbow Room Salad that includes smoked turkey breast, roast beef and roast chicken as well as delicious buffalo cheese topping the salad.

The Elbow Room Club Steak at $19 is the most expensive item on the menu, but any serious carnivore will tell you it’s worth it. The meat is bought from international suppliers based in Kabul and is tasty and tender. It can be prepared to order -- rare, medium or well-done. Be cautioned though, the meat sometimes arrives at your table a little pinker than expected, so be sure to clearly state your choice.

The presentation of all the dishes is stylish and fun with geometric shapes decorated with squiggles of sauces and fruits and vegetables.  
Jamie and Gareth are assisted in the kitchen by Alfonzo Cortez who has worked as a chef for the Marriott Hotel chain in his native
Manila and the Hyatt group, as well as Oliver Plaza, who previously worked in international hotels in Dubai and the Philippines.

“These are tough conditions to work in, the kitchen is small and I’m trying to train the Afghan staff and, at the same time, prepare the meals,” Alfonzo says.  “It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m happy to be passing on my knowledge to the people helping me. It’s also great to hear people compliment the food.”

There are plans to expand the menu and provide a lunchtime service. Decadent deserts are also heralded. For now, ice cream or crepes are the only options available.

The service is friendly but over-stretched at peak times. You should book a table in advance to ensure you get seated.

There is plenty of parking inside the Elbow Room compound for embassy vehicles as well as secure attendant parking on the main road.

A key element to any restaurant experience is the lavatory, which at Elbow Room is marble-floored and spotless. Best of all, Elbow Room has been given UN security clearance. The Elbow Room seats 80.

 

كابل، افغانستان

The Survival Guide to Kabul©

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