For more than 12 years, the Popal family has run cafes and brassy lounges dedicated to French fare, the cuisine that once defined polite society in this company town. The Popal family, as you might surmise, is not French. In the early 1980s, Zubair and Shamim Popal and their children were among millions of Afghans to flee the country as war with the Soviet Union continued to punish the population.
Now, it’s hard to begrudge anyone’s success in business, let alone immigrants finding their way in a foreign country, but after eating several times at Lapis in Adams Morgan, I can’t help but wish the Popal clan had started serving Afghan dishes earlier. They exhibit an expansive, stylish and even humorous touch in presenting the food of their homeland.
Retrofitted into the sunny corner space that once housed Napoleon Bistro, a former Popal project, Lapis gently mocks the kebab-intensive stereotype of Afghan cuisine: “Veggie dishes are Afghanistan’s best-kept secret,” the menu states, “because most people think we are meat-eating mountain people with large turbans (that’s also true).”
Education and self-deprecation rolled into one sentence; it’s a recurring menu tick that endears Lapis to me faster than a half-dozen freebies from the kitchen. Just as delectable are the meat-free plates that reveal the fruity, earthy, spicy flavors of the Afghan table.
The 16-bean Afghan “risotto” is more stew than velvety rice preparation, a distinction that will help you revel in the fragrant dish without making unwarranted comparisons. Speaking of such, Lapis’s sabzi, a bowl of sauteed greens concealing a wealth of spices in its watery folds, has just supplanted Indian saag as my go-to spinach dish. Tomatoes make repeated appearances here, none better than in a dish called buranee banjan, in which eggplant slices are layered with sauteed tomatoes and topped with garlic yogurt and a sprinkle of dried mint. Tomatoes play more of a secondary role in the gulpee, an unassuming cauliflower dish that surprises you with its spicy gut punch.
While I admire Lapis for drawing attention to its produce-forward plates, the place mysteriously plays down its rice. Numerous dishes arrive sans grains, and the menu offers neophytes little perspective on the importance of rice in Afghan food and culture. I guess you could say Lapis lets its rice do the talking: The qabuli palow, the national dish of Afghanistan, wears a colorful mask of julienned carrots and raisins, under which is a mound of cardamom-and-cinnamon scented rice concealing chunks of fork-tender (no, make that spoon-tender) lamb. The chalow, this pristine snowbank of long-grain white rice, will haunt your waking hours as you daydream about its buttery textures and black cumin aromatics.
Family matriarch Shamim Popal, 60, is the driving force behind the menu. Her story has to be one of the most heart-wrenching in D.C. dining circles: Forced by war to flee her native land, Popal was then a non-cook forced to learn her native cuisine, which she dutifully did, only to keep the dishes out of the public eye for years. Perhaps her caution was necessary; it gave the dining public time to open its mind to the idea of refined Afghan food served in a setting far removed from the counter-service kebab houses.
Stripped of the gilded, black-leather opulence that defined Napoleon Bistro, the space has been transformed into something more inviting, with lots of warm wood elements and family photos hanging on the walls. The homey atmosphere would be even better with roomier tables, particularly the two-tops, which can feel as crowded as the Bernie Sanders bandwagon when the plates start arriving. (It doesn’t help when the food runner unceremoniously drops plates at your table, forcing you to make room for them.)
Often rooted in the dietary laws of Islam, Afghan restaurants have been routinely alcohol-free zones in the States, but places such as Afghan Bistro in Springfield, Va., and Lapis have not just introduced beer and wine, they’ve also developed their own craft cocktails. More than collective razzes to the Taliban, these drink lists incorporate the flavors of Afghanistan into spirits that have come to dominate American dining rooms. I fully support Lapis’s Five Lions cocktail, a gin-based libation infused with cardamom syrup and lime. The Lapis Manhattan has a sharp, satisfying bitter edge even with a sweet vermouth infused with cardamom and orange.
Before you believe the Popal family has turned the traditional Afghan restaurant on its head, the menu still packs plenty of meaty pleasures. I’d skip the soft, grainy, minced-beef shamee kebab in favor of the beef mantoo dumplings, chewy steamed packets topped with a yellow-split-pea-and-tomato sauce and tarted up nicely with a dollop of housemade yogurt. Is it my imagination or did the dumpling presentations get progressively more refined as I dined at Lapis? Either the cooks in the kitchen are learning at an exponential rate or they spotted the food critic by my final visit. Whatever the reason, be prepared: The beauty of your plate may vary by customer, or by visit.
Personally, I would skip the stews and head straight to the grill section. Not only are the stew portions paltry, but they may arrive without a serving spoon, forcing you to pick at the bone-in meat without the full benefit of, say, the ginger and garlic aromas buried in the lamb qorma sauce.
No such problems arise with the “Afghan shepherd” lamb chops, known as chopawn, these crusty, spicy, meaty bones with the unmistakable sour bite of sumac. The morgh, or chicken, kebabs make an equally strong impression: The chunks of breast meat survive their brush with fire without surrendering every drop of moisture. Even better, the sumac-dusted chicken can be sent up in flames with an ordnance called chutney sabz, a sour, green-pepper condiment of remarkable power.
The same sort of imposing flavors can appear on the dessert menu, too. And yet I find myself having a negative reaction when confronted with an assault of cardamom or rose water in my vanilla bean ice cream or of orange-zest syrup in my sharbat pound cake. Either I still have room to grow in my appreciation of Afghan desserts, or the sweets need further refinement for American palates. I suspect I’m the one who needs to open my mind.
Location: 1847 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-299-9630. www.lapisdc.com.
Open: Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Starters, soups and salads, $3 to $12; entrees and rices, $6 to $24.
Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with a raised voice.
Tom Sietsema returns next week.
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