There’s chutney everywhere: streaked across piles of rice, dabbed on crisp flatbreads, blotted up by grilled kebabs. Jars of the stuff — gleaming containers of pure verdant green and sticky maraschino red — are on display. At Chili Chutney, a months-old Afghan restaurant in Lake Forest, the condiment is elevated to a cornerstone.
Owner Shalah Wadood’s cilantro and jalapeño chutney stings with herbal heat, its texture like that of a pesto pounded just to the point of cohesion. But it’s the bell pepper chutney that inspires addiction. The alluring balance of capsaicin-spiked sweetness wouldn’t be out of place on a carefully composed cheese plate. Both are already being sold at the restaurant, but soon, Wadood says, they’ll be stocked on the shelves of local Middle Eastern markets.
The restaurant operates under Wadood’s ambassadorial vision, one that helped introduce Orange County to Afghan cuisine at her family’s shuttered Stanton restaurant, Arya. Chili Chutney is a scaling back in scope — the six-table space doesn’t approach gilded opulence — but its ambitions are grand nonetheless.
Chili Chutney is the lone restaurant in its miniscule strip mall, shared with a quick-fix auto body shop and day laborers waiting interminably for work. At a glance, the restaurant may look like a house of kebabs that serves delicately charred skewers of chicken and beef dwarfed by mountains of basmati rice. But Chili Chutney also offers a much broader, if still concise, range of Afghan cooking.
To start, there are samosas, an Afghan iteration not unlike those of its Indian and Pakistani relatives. Banjan borani is as much a dip as a dish, eggplant sautéed almost to the point of liquefaction. Sweet strands of caramelized eggplant, onion, tomato and bell pepper poke through a dollop of sour cream and a scattering of dried mint.
Though it’s ostensibly a starter, the chapli kebab can easily accommodate entrée-sized appetites. In any other context, the beef patties might be considered ideal burgers — thoroughly spiced and scraped from the griddle only after a serious sear. But with a dip through the chutney of your choosing and a side of cucumber, onion and tomato salad rendered nearly as fine as a brunoise, the chapli kebab is definitively Afghan.
Chili Chutney’s mantu could sustain you for hours. The neat little beef-and-onion dumplings are smothered in sour cream and a meaty sauce sort of like a Central Asian ragu. There’s ashak too, similarly dressed dumplings loaded with green onions instead of meat. Both kinds of dumplings are deceptively diminutive, swelling in your stomach to what must be three times their size.
Bolani should be on every table. The stuffed flatbread is fried to a grease-free crunch and served with a side of sour cream, though like many dishes here is better enlivened by the restaurant’s chutneys. The potato bolani is the hearty choice, a spiced mash that comes across like an oversized samosa pounded into a pancake. The leek bolani is nearly as rugged, with shards of leek spilling out with each bite.
Chili Chutney’s scope expands on the weekends for what some consider Afghanistan’s quintessential dish: kabuli pulao. It’s the national answer to Persian polo, a heap of fragrant basmati rice studded with gobbets of tender lamb, slightly candied carrots and raisins. There’s a certain restrained sweetness to it, the same trait that accents the restaurant’s simple yet superb cardamom-scented rice pudding.
Location: 25262 Jeronimo Road, Suite B, Lake Forest; (949) 859-1778.
Price: Appetizers, $3.99 to $6.99; entrees, $7.99 to $10.99; desserts, $4.99 to $5.99; sides and drinks, $1.50 to $4.99.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.