The new Afghan bistro Lapis in Adams Morgan is named after a deep-blue stone, but if you want to see some real gems, just page through the asides on its quippy menu:
On defying stereotypes: “Most people think we are meat-eating mountain people with large turbans (that’s also true).”
On national security: “A topsecret [sic] recipe (known only to our mom and the NSA).”
On existential philosophy: “These are more than just mere sides. They are like ornaments to your main dish . . . the way your iPhone is to your very existence.”
It’s the Popal family’s tongue-in-cheek version of cultural diplomacy. Formerly their French restaurant Napoleon, Lapis is the Popals’ first commercial venture serving the food of their heritage. (They also own Cafe Bonaparte and Malmaison in Georgetown.)
“I think more people are exposed to Afghan food now, because of trouble in Afghanistan,” said matriarch and chef Shamim Popal. “When we came here in 1987, trust me, no one knew where Afghanistan was.”
In the District’s broadening international food scene, the change is a welcome one. Lapis, a restaurant fragrant with cumin, garlic, cardamom and rose water, is exotic enough for those seeking the meat-eating mountain person experience and accessibly chic enough for the ornamental iPhone set.
“Afghan food is mild,” and less spicy than Indian and Pakistani food, chef Popal said. “If I cook okra, I like to taste that okra, not to overwhelm that spice on it.”
Her dishes such as lamb shorba, a traditional soup with potatoes, carrots and other vegetables, are peppery and multidimensional but don’t pack a punch. Guests who want to add heat should order an accompaniment of red or green chutney, spicy cilantro-infused dips that go with, well, just about anything on the menu. As for that subtly spiced okra, it’s one of an array of intriguing, colorful vegetable dishes: green spinach and leeks; red kidney beans; yellow lentils; thick orange wedges of pumpkin.
Afghan dumplings (“Yes, they exist!” trumpets the menu) are both the most and least traditional thing Popal serves. Some may be surprised to see shrimp on the menu from a land-locked country, but it’s an innovative filling for saffron-hinted mantoo, a traditional handmade dumpling. Better still are the old-fashioned kind, stuffed with beef and topped with pea and tomato sauce and a swizzle of yogurt. The dish is so labor-intensive that Popal says one cook’s entire job is just shaping the dumplings.
Though she re-trained the Napoleon staff in her cuisine, the chef says she is too much of a perfectionist about her generations-old family recipes to let them fully take over. “Right now I’m making several dishes personally until I really trust the cooks,” she said.
One is firnee, a dessert so perfumed you could practically dab it on your wrists, and difficult to master: The texture of the cardamom-pistachio custard, which requires much experimentation to perfect, is silky smooth.
Portion sizes are puzzling. Given the cuisine’s tradition of family-style sharing, Lapis bills itself as a small-plates restaurant on the menu’s opening page. The definition of small seems to vary, however. Several appetizers were larger than the shared mains. The term “stew” might imply a heartier bowl, but a kofta was served in a small cup with just two meatballs. An appetizer of bolani, a potato-filled bread similar to Indian paratha, was nearly entree-size. When two diners at the same table ordered the same cocktail, one came in a glass much larger than the other.
The inconsistency makes it hard to know how much to order, but you won’t be disappointed if you end up with too much food. And note that if you’re a fan of naan — Lapis’s is whole-wheat, baked daily — you’ll want to request extra.
Those who used to frequent Napoleon will find the corner restaurant transformed, with distressed white paint on the walls, carved-wood room dividers, and ornamental teakettles and instruments. A pressed-tin ceiling and snug wood tables make the dining room a noisy one, despite the sound-dampening — and beautiful — rugs from an Afghan antique store in Virginia. Go to the restrooms downstairs for a cheeky take on another association with the word “Afghan”: framed retro illustrations from crochet patterns for those 1970s-chic blankets.
Like the menu, which was written by son Mustafa Popal, the pictures are yet another way that Lapis both plays into and upends Americans’ perceptions of Afghans and their cuisine. And there’s one more thing that makes Lapis a rare gem: Most of its vegetarian dishes are dairy-free, making it that unicorn of a restaurant that can equally satisfy carnivores and vegans. As it turns out, that meat-eating mountain-person stereotype is only half true.
1847 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-299-9630. www.lapisdc.com. Open Mondays through Fridays, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Entrees, $11 to $27. Tom Sietsema will return next week.