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On weekends, Mirage is a busy banquet hall that hosts everything from weddings to performances, religious celebrations to birthday parties, most centered on Lake Forest's surprisingly large Afghan community. But during the week, the cavernous space—whose outside resembles an El Torito and which can hold 1,000 people—becomes a serene restaurant (save for the Bollywood-esque music blasting on a loop). You essentially eat in the lobby of the place, as the other rooms are either being prepared for the parties to come or being used by a corporation for a group lunch.
Mirage bills itself as an Italian and Afghan restaurant, and while the first part of the menu works well enough (the pastas aren't bad, the pizzas are better), visit for the latter. Afghan cuisine has lurked around Orange County for the past 15 years, with restaurants coming and going and the only breakout hit being Lake Forest's Chili Chutney. Part of the problem, methinks, is Americans just don't know what to make of the cuisine, which is part Indian, part Persian, part Chinese, but wholly Afghan. Our loss because Afghan food is muy bueno. A great example is the dumplings: While Americans usually think of the dish as individually wrapped, the Afghan version works more as a casserole decorated with chile oil and a heap of maust'khiar (cucumber dip). Whether you get the meat dumplings called mantu or the leek ones (ashak), Mirage nails them: airy, chewy, hefty, wonderful.
There are a couple of kebabs and wraps for more mainstream eaters, but stick with the Afghan specialties. Get the Qabili palau—a gargantuan rice pilaf of lamb, carrots and raisins—and drown it with the tangy chutney. Share a bolani—basically an Afghan quesadilla stuffed with chives and leeks that's made with a naan-type bread. Mirage offers a second type of Afghan bread reminiscent of focaccia, but far denser and with sesame seeds on top; it's perfect for dips. But, really, the time to go is during one of Mirage's epic banquets, for which the staff bring out even rarer dishes (mastawa, we hardly know thee) and the vibe is hopping. The only way you'll get in, though, is if you have an Afghan friend—so what are you waiting for?
Mirage Restaurant & Banquet Hall, 22731 Aspan St., Lake Forest, (949) 716-4323; miragerestaurantoc.com.