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With Aracosia, McLean gets its wish: A taste of Afghan

A popular appetizer at Aracosia in McLean — the spicy beef dumplings with a carrot and peas qorma, yogurt garlic sauce and crushed dry mint. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Ever since Omar Masroor opened his second Afghan restaurant three years ago, Bistro Aracosia in the Palisades, customers from across the Potomac have pressed the owner: “When are you going to open in McLean?” Masroor says he was asked — “more than 100 times.”

While he took the question as a compliment, the Kabul native also fretted about competing with himself in Northern Virginia. His original restaurant, Afghan Bistro, was in nearby Springfield. But Masroor did some research, found a spot close to his fans — the former Il Borgo — and started serving leek-and-scallion dumplings and lamb kebabs at Aracosia in January.

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The second-floor dining room, preceded by a bar, is a modest beauty dominated by acrylic murals of Afghan horsemen and royalty. Even on a busy night, Aracosia is easy on the ears. Thick curtains and faux leather table covers help soak up sound like a sponge. Friday and Saturday nights are accompanied by live sitar music, courtesy of Masroor’s cousin. Like all of the owner’s establishments, the latest involves family members. Sofia Masroor, Omar’s wife and business partner, plays the same role she has performed at their other venues. Patrons eat pretty much the same Afghan food she learned to make as a young bride and cooks for her own kin. The contentments start with gratis flatbread and four distinct dips. I’m partial to the sting of vinegar and herbs in one, the cool of avocado and yogurt in another.

General manager Patrick Desvenain brings a skill set honed most recently at the Hay-Adams hotel and BlackSalt, and he has assembled a wine list that tempts you to splurge on some of the charms of France and Italy. For such a young business, Aracosia feels like a well-oiled machine. In the months before it opened, Omar says he overstaffed his other restaurants to facilitate training and made partners of two loyal servers. The result, by all appearances, is a happy crew that knows the menu as if they watched Sofia fuss over the food.

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You’ll want sambosa, juicy ground beef and lentils in sheer pastry dusted with powdered sugar and cardamom. “We grew up eating them in Kabul with tea,” typically at weddings and parties, says Sofia. Her mantu — housemade, beef-filled dumplings striped with yogurt and speckled with dried mint and cayenne — are crowd-pleasers, too.

Give or take some specials, Aracosia’s long menu reads like those of its siblings. I can never resist chicken combined with a garden of cooked greens — kale, collards, spinach — punched up with cilantro, dill and leeks, or veal in a racy stew of tomatoes, eggplant and silken bell peppers. The veal is draped with optional yogurt and garlic and dropped off with a little side dish of chopped green chiles. Fire away! (Entrees arrive on fragrant beds of saffron rice.) The only wrinkle in recent visits has been a special of quail, nicely seasoned with sumac and paprika but dry from too much time on the grill. Also, three small bites of lamb tenderloin, while juicy, makes for a skimpy $14 appetizer.

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Otherwise, meals here are as filling as Thanksgiving. Somehow, we make room for firni, the snow-white custard sprinkled with crushed pistachios and cardamom.

Aracosia’s heaping helpings see lots of customers departing with leftovers. “I want them to feel like they are coming to our home,” says Sofia.

And so we do, and once again.

1381 Beverly Rd., McLean. 703-269-3820. Dinner entrees, $14.50 to $41.95.

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