Updated: May 7, 2021
Atlantic County Magazine – GACCA Article
Print Date 5.7.2021
By Judy Brenna
Last Saturday, my fiancé, Mike, and I decided to take a last minute, impromptu trip to Atlantic City for the day, for some much-needed retail therapy at the Tanger Outlets and then dinner. “Much-needed” because my project management class was particularly difficult that morning and left my brain completely fried ((and me in tears)) and because it was my birthday, and mama wanted a brand-new bag. I will admit, there was a very poignant moment when the day could have gone completely south, after my episode with class, but just as the tears were flooding down my face Mike walked through the door carrying a German chocolate birthday cake and all negative thoughts were immediately washed away ((#fatgirlproblems)). What I was most excited for, though, was dinner, because we made reservations at a place I had been dying to try since they opened in 2019, Setaara, located on Arctic Avenue.
Setaara is an Afghan and French fusion restaurant, founded by Atlantic City native, Abdullah Panah, a Stockton grad and current medical student at Rowan, and a world traveler. Teaming up with his aunt, Homa Bazyar, who formally trained under a French chef in Denver, Colorado, and had owned and operated a successful French bistro for decades, they worked tirelessly to open a totally unique dining concept. Double points, also, for the fact that Setaara is Atlantic City’s first Afghan Restaurant, and the ONLY French restaurant in the area. The ultimately cool factor though is the experience they offer, because a truly great chef knows, it’s not the food alone that will carry the place, it’s the ambience, the mood, the lighting, and even the sound. Abdullah and Homa submerses you into a journey, back to Afghanistan of the 1960’s, before the wars, offering up a cuisine that stands as a testament to the various empires that have passed through the country from the Greeks to the Mongols to the Mughals and Persians.
Let me walk you through the magic that is Setaara. There you are, approaching the restaurant, down an Atlantic City side street, with cars whizzing by, bustling with lots of people making all kinds of noises, and you approach a set of rustic doors, the kind you picture Indiana Jones walking through when visiting his friend, Sallah, and his family, but when he enters the room is empty, hungry, he reaches for the bowl of dates on the table and suddenly a pack of insurgents and Nazis rush in! Yeah, those doors. So, you walk through these very cool, ornate doors and find yourself in a tiled, twinkling hallway, and you suddenly think of a passage way to another world, almost Narnia-like, minus the fur coats. And by the time you get to the interior door to approach the host stand, smiling like a complete idiot, you have now completely forgotten you’re in Atlantic City.
You’re then greeted with genuinely warm and friendly smiles, which then forces your smile to widen even more, giving the Joker a run for his money. And of course, like a giddy moron, you’re so excited you exclaim, “Hi! I’m so excited to be here! It’s my birthday!”. After immediately composing yourself, you’re escorted through the room to the back of the building, passing all kinds of artwork, designed by local Atlantic City artists including Christian Correa, Leah Morgan, and Edwin Riviera, and into a legitimate outdoor oasis, with soft, melodic sounds of the Middle East playing in the background. You step into a courtyard filled with flowers and sunlight, Persian rugs adorning the walls, and outdoor heating lamps. And as soon as you sit down, you’re greeted with uber friendly staff, offering to walk you through the menu, suggesting fresh-pressed watermelon juice or herbal and spice-infused teas.
And if the vibe and environment hasn’t transport you to another world, the cuisine absolutely will. And when they say Afghan French fusion, they in no way fall short. Their menu is the perfect mish-mosh of both cuisines, from escargot to braised lamb and kebobs to decadent desserts. At first glance of the menu you tell your server you want to order everything so you can taste it ALL, to which she laughs a knowing laugh. Alas, you don’t have a disposable income, so sadly you and your partner stick with one appetizer and one entrée each. You start out with their Dolani, dough stuffed with potatoes and fried with cilantro and served with an herbed chutney that is so good you want to drink it. Your partner orders their signature dish, Uzbeki Palau, a giant lamb shank slowly braised in the most sumptuous sauce and accompanied by their Afghan rice cooked with raisins, carrots, and spices, and you order the Kofta Chalau, their savory beef meatballs, and to your surprise and joy it’s accompanied by their chutney, which you then drink fearing zero judgement from onlookers. You both stuff yourselves so much you’ve left no room room for dessert, a regret you will carry with you for the rest of your days. The most gratifying feeling, though, after you pay your bill and exit the venue, is when you pass back through the restaurant, walk back down the passageway and step back through the super cool doors and onto Arctic Avenue. Back to the sounds of sirens and hub-bub. Back to reality. But you’re ok with it because you literally feel like Alice returning from Wonderland, with a bunch of super cools experiences and memories in tow, but you know, minus the whole scariness of a semi-creepy stoned caterpillar, a deck of homicidal playing cards and an insidious cat. You are completely transformed, going over your calendar in your head, wondering when you can return.
THIS is the experience you’re getting at Setaara. I highly recommend, if you haven’t already, taking a trip to Setaara for a magical culinary journey, you absolutely won’t regret it. Your waist band might, but you absolutely will not. Until next week, folks… #stayjerseystrong!