As the hour mark approached without food arriving, guests engaged in cheerful conversation around the empty table. The beeps of a battery-hungry smoke alarm punctuated our vigil, drilling my ears like sonic Chinese water torture.
I had gotten a tip from a Pakistani grocer that Appletree Halal, a block south of Martin Luther King Jr. Park, drew Pakistani families seeking some of the long-simmered curries, baked-to-order bread, and other dishes they prize. A squad of culinary scouts arrived at the spartan dining room, empty except for a foursome of men waiting for food, and a woman negotiating her take-out dinner.
I had ordered a dozen dishes at the counter. As we caught up with each others’ lives, I wondered if it would be a night to remember, for all the wrong reasons. (Beep. Beep.)
Then freshly baked naan arrived, puffy, brushed with garlic butter and speckled with sesame seeds, and we happily began to break bread.
Appletree Halal has been open since 2013, first as a grocery that served steam-table curries and rice pilaf.
It’s now mainly a restaurant, with tables for parties large and small, and a prayer nook for observant Muslims. The room could use a coat of paint, but I wasn't here to savor decor.
My main areas of interest were the fresh breads, curries and kabobs. Pakistani cuisine has a well-deserved reputation for meaty indulgences, but the three vegetarian curries that we sampled were excellent.
Chana masala ($6.99 large), curried chickpeas, was aromatic with warming spices, including a whole cinnamon stick. Its gravy was more cooked-down onion and ginger than the tomatoey base of many Indian versions.
As many Appletree curries, it came covered with a pool of oil, characteristic of the cuisine, but against mainstream American standards. Whether drained or blotted, the flavors are worth a bit of remediation work.
Dal ($6.99 large), curried lentils, carried aspects of browned butter, and legumes that still had firmness to their bite. Palak paneer ($9.99 large), spinach cooked down into a buttery mash punctuated by chunks of mild paneer cheese, was alive with the butterscotchy flavor of fenugreek and musky cumin.
Rice is not included in the curry price, except in a separate "over rice" menu section. All these curries went well with the serviceable vegetable biryani ($5.99), or bread. Naan, baked-to-order bread in garlic ($2) and plain ($1.50) is thicker, puffier and faintly sweet, unlike its Indian cousin. I wish all eating implements were so edible.
Sheesh kabobs come in spiced ground chicken and beef. The meat is flavored with onion, chiles, cilantro and spices, including coriander, then shaped into sausage-sized links, skewered, and grilled. The results were noticeably springy, not meatloaf-dense, making for lighter texture.
Chicken ($3.50 each) vanished first, but the beef ($3.99) had its fans. It was especially enjoyable dipped into some of the bracingly sour cilantro-chile yogurt dip our table was offered, though it does not appear on the printed menu. We also were offered plates of chopped iceberg lettuce with crunchy sliced tomatoes, for a bit of greenery.
Lamb chops ($4 each) having seemingly been precooked and warmed, didn’t make much of an impression. Chicken tikka ($6.99), marinated chunks of chicken, was grilled to dryness, some bites in cotton-ball territory.
The menu offers paye ($14.99 large), a dish made from beef trotter cooked until tender, but it was sold out during my visit.
Nihari ($14.99 large) arrived covered with an Exxon-Valdez-level oil slick. But I dug deep and kept going back for more bites of husky pot-roast-tender beef in silky gravy. (Traditionally it's fortified with bone marrow.) Goat masala ($14 large) was chunks of bone-in meat, mostly tender, and aromatic gravy that emphasized its lamb-like flavor.
Chicken achari ($12.99 large) was another highlight. Bone-in chicken simmered for a long time in a sauce spiked with assertive pickle, like green mango or lemon, its tangy character perked up what could have otherwise been a heavy curry.
My favorite dish of the evening was haleem ($13.99 large), which reminded me of a fine-grained beanless Texas chili, by way of Karachi. This mash-up of chicken, lentils and grain, scooped up with bread and spooned onto rice, quickly joined comfort food roster. Long cooking gave it the tenderness of porridge, but the spices and a topping of shredded fresh ginger gave it spirit.
On Sunday mornings, breakfast dishes are available, including paratha ($2), griddled wheat bread, and a special ($7.99) of chana masala with two poori, deep-fried bread that puffs up like a balloon, and suji halwa, semolina pudding.
Owner Muhammad Afzal apologized for the delay. Due to uncertainties, unadventurous diners might prefer ordering through a courier service. (A move I support only if you tip well, especially in this weather.)
Despite my efforts, I don’t think I can say I’ve explored the menu completely. Without trying the paye, I wouldn’t have a hoof to stand on.
Appletree Halal Restaurant – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 898 Genesee St. (768-4818)
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: appetizers, $1.25 to $6.99; curries, $4.99 to o$14.99; wraps, $3.99 to $6.99; kabobs $3.50 to $7.99.
Atmosphere: peaceful, except for beeping.
Wheelchair accessible: yes.
Gluten-free options: none offered