Icon review: Afghan Gallery

The mixed entree includes ashak, mantoo and grilled eggplant.
The mixed entree includes ashak, mantoo and grilled eggplant. Photo: Justin McManus

327 Brunswick St Fitzroy, VIC 3065

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Opening hours Daily 6pm-11pm
Features BYO, Licensed, Groups, Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9417 2430

How's your humanitarian work going this year? Got a compost bin yet? Signed the petition to stop the clearing of the sacred Djab Wurrung birthing tree? Good work. Sincerely. Every little bit helps and don't you ever forget it.

Of course, you're no Dr Nouria Salehi, AM, OAM, 2012 Senior Australian of the Year, and holder of a PhD in nuclear medicine, who might have done more for Afghan refugees than any other individual in Australia.

Part of that work, which covers the full spectrum from founding the Afghan Settlement Support Group, to personally schlepping out to Tullamarine to pick up and temporarily house newly released detainees, was establishing with her brother Timur, the Afghan Gallery restaurant on Brunswick Street.

Afghan Gallery's upstairs tent room.
Afghan Gallery's upstairs tent room. Photo: Justin McManus

Maybe you know the 36-year-old Fitzroy restaurant simply for its spiced yoghurt curries, for its excellently boho carpeted and cushioned dining room upstairs, or for the fact that it offers BYO. All valid reasons.

What you may not have realised is that Afghan Gallery was established to act as a landing zone for Afghan refugees. It provided work, community, a place to practise language skills while stability was established – the welcome to Melbourne that Melbourne didn't always afford.

Over three decades, none of that has changed. Today it's mostly fronted by Timur, Nouria's junior by a couple of decades, who himself fled Afghanistan by foot, over the Khyber Pass. It's as welcoming back of house as it is at the front.

Lamb lawand with yoghurt.
Lamb lawand with yoghurt. Photo: Justin McManus

It's beautifully, informally kind. You timidly ask if you can get among the rugs upstairs where billowing swathes of fabric complete the tent effect. And even though it's not a busy night, of course you can go up, you must.

On goes the sitar music. Out comes the banquet – not compulsory, but a good idea for groups, though you do miss unshareable numbers like the koroutti, a chilled yoghurt soup.

Instead comes the snack pack of Afghanistan, lamb mantoo. Sometimes a tiny and delicate dumpling, here they're bigger pouches of dim sum size, finished with spiced tomato and tangy yoghurt in a flamboyant slash. Similarly anointed are ashak, bubbly pastry parcels with a filling of vivid leeks, and thick sections of roasted eggplant, roasted sweet and soft then chilled.

Chicken khandahari.
Chicken khandahari. Photo: Justin McManus

Did you BYO? Forgot? They don't observe Afghanistan's anti-booze policy here and in fact offer a $31.50 bottle, not as a list's cheapest, but most expensive wine.

If you don't consider Oyster Bay a party starter, perhaps you'll accept a sizzling platter? A spicy, cuminy lamb sausage drops, the spitting fat to be mopped up with Afghan naan – puffy, wholemeal, wholesome.

Next, pilau rice, toasted and buttery, completes the soak layer for the turmeric-stained, garlicky chicken khandahari; a cardamom-lilting spinach dish (qorma-i-sabzi), akin to India's saag, and a gentle beef curry, again more spice-fragrant than spicy.

It's a laissez-faire attitude here, and I would advise you approach with the same. Unless you warn of a need to rush, there is none. But who's hurrying? When did you last get to help ease the plight of refugees just by eating dinner and taking a magic carpet ride? What a win for one and all.

Address 327 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 03 9417 2430.

Open Daily 6pm-11pm.

Est. 1983.

Signature dishes: Chicken khandahari, mantoo, ashak (leek pastries).

Famous diners: They have consistently failed to recognise every famous diner for 36 years.