The recipients of sambosa goshti at Bistro Aracosia in the Palisades get a little lesson in Afghan culture when the starter is presented.
“We eat sweet appetizers with unsweetened tea and salty ones with sweet tea,” says Taliha Masroor, the daughter of owner Omar Masroor. The backgrounder explains why there’s a dusting of powdered sugar and ground cardamom on the pan-fried turnovers filled with juicy ground beef, a flavor combination that makes perfect sense when it hits the tongue.
There’s more where that goodness comes from at the inviting new spinoff of Afghan Bistro in Springfield, whose name derives from a long-ago reference to Afghanistan. Unveiled in October, the restaurant is staffed by a dozen or so members of the owner’s family, including wife Sofia, who executes the long menu from a kitchen that used to be the French-Thai Bistroquet.
Wisely, Masroor temporarily closed his suburban outpost so that he could tap veteran servers to help launch Aracosia, whose two dining rooms seat about 80 diners and display blowups of whirling dervishes and ancient kings and warriors. (Afghan Bistro is expected to reopen, following some minor renovation, sometime in December.) The owner instructs his staff to treat diners as “guests in our house” rather than mere customers, a distinction I’ve observed every welcoming visit.
As at the original, Bistro Aracosia cooks without butter, cream, a fryer or microwave ovens. Any meal benefits from an opener of lentil soup, thick with chickpeas and the option of minced beef, plus dried mint and rings of yogurt. Pumpkin dumplings are too sweet for my taste; better are the supple, cayenne-kissed aushak, filled with leeks and scallions and draped with a sauce of ground meat. Rumi’s chicken, a tantalizing tomato-based stew, seesaws from sweet to tangy on the palate. Of the new entrees, veal sabzi lawaan is one of the best, braised cubes of meat seasoned with turmeric and bolstered with spinach and other greens.
It helps if you like cardamom, a primary spice in the Afghan repertoire, including the basmati rice strewn with julienne carrots that shore up many of the main courses, including the popular marinated lamb chops. Boldly seasoned, the entree also picks up some smokiness from the grill.
The chief difference between the restaurateur’s Washington audience and the one in Springfield? He says diners in the District are better acquainted with the cuisine and (say it isn’t so!) more vocal about their preferences. Masroor inherited from the previous occupant some bad acoustics, for instance, a problem he hopes to alleviate with sound buffering. And the hard chairs are poised to be replaced with something more comfortable, he promises.
My biggest concern, if you can call it that, is portion size. The kitchen sends out helpings that suggest a linebacker is going to tackle them. What I see as excess, however, another diner might welcome as a future meal. And lucky them.
5100 MacArthur Blvd. 202-363-0400. bistroaracosia.com. Dinner entrees, $12.95 to $28.95.