Plainly Simple
[from October 2002 issue]

Thinking about Afghani food provides a challenge in this post-9/11 world. Consider how Afghanistan's culture has been wrecked and what its people have suffered, and you take a different look at its cuisine. Not particularly glamorous--at least not in the way Thai and Indian foods are--and certainly not overly spiced or complex, the cooking and food seem to reflect the same sturdy, hardy and resilient nature of its people who have made do with the real basics: simple grilled meats; rice and root vegetables baked and mildly seasoned with spices and yogurts; and delicate rice moistened with meat juices. All in all, this cuisine melds elements of Indian and Persian cooking.

That's certainly the picture painted by DC's Afghan Grill, situated in an upstairs room not much larger than a fair-sized closet and bare of excessive decorative frills and fripperies--except for a front window filled with traditional Afghani crafts. Opened just a short while before 9/11 as a remodel of the much earlier Khyber Pass restaurant, this eatery offers a diminutive menu that, despite its brevity, serves and pleases a fascinating cross-section of Washington's dining public.

Take a recent night, midweek, when in the space of one hour the patrons included an elderly gentleman who looked like an escapee from a British tearoom; three women having a business meeting; two twenty-something model types; Mr. and Mrs. Young Executive; and a crowd of pan-Asian folks scouting out a gastronomic adventure. Quite a diversity for a microscopic restaurant.

And it's not the glamour that is the snare here: It's the basic, simple, honest cooking that works a kind of magic and includes a handful of kebabs; pleasantly grilled and very tender Afghani bread; an array of vegetarian dishes that incorporate the pumpkin, yogurt and eggplant staples of the cuisine; and fluffy rice that serves as foil for rich meat stews. Although such cooking is not new to the Washington palate--there are, after all, maybe a dozen or so other Afghani restaurants in the metro area--the Afghan Grill may well be the best of its genre.

What's best on the menu? If it's available--and it wasn't at my visit--order the aush, a vegetable-laden soup that, depending on the cook, may contain meatballs, bits of lamb, herbs, and and/or noodles, with a trace of yogurt as a final garnish. Instead, select the very delicate turnovers called bulanee, which, when done right as here, present themselves as a delicate pastry wrapped around a potato and leek filling. You can order this also as an entrée portion, which is something that management does with many of its dishes.

But one entrée that did not appear as a stripped-down appetizer was the lamb palow, a stew-like dish that marries mild curry flavors with lamb under a heap of steamed and buttery rice. In keeping with the simplicity of the preparation, garnishes consist of a sprinkling of raisins and a scoop of sugary, steamed julienned carrots. Surprisingly, the cubed lamb was delicate and tender, and unexpectedly so. And that would suggest that the kebabs--from the ground beef version to the lamb chops and the lamb kebab--would be singularly delicious. As a side dish to any of the entrées, you might consider the kadu buranee, steamed and puréed pumpkin topped with yogurt and cooked ground meat.

This simple menu holds few surprises. But even so its short list of entrées and desserts--try the firnee, a sweet rice pudding--make this an appealing evening destination; it is no longer open for lunch. What is not so appealing is the frustrating lack of nighttime parking in its Connecticut Avenue vicinity. This makes Afghan Grill a destination that requires either a long walk (or a convenient walk for Woodley Park and Adams Morgan neighbors), a Metro or a taxi ride, or an hour's search for a parking space (which is hardly the fault of the restaurant’s owners!).

Afghan Grill, 2309 Calvert St.; tel., 234-5095. Hours: Tue.-Sun. 5-10:30pm. Entrée prices: $9.95-$15.95. Major credit cards accepted.

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