It's a dramatic transformation, but not altogether shocking. The Popals had pondered opening an Afghan restaurant around 2007, just a few years after finding success with Cafe Bonaparte in Georgetown. But the family got cold feet and instead launched Napoleon Bistro, the moody two-level space with crepe selections upstairs and a champagne bar downstairs in the Metropolitan Lounge.
"We have one French" restaurant, matriarch Shamim Popal recalls the family's thinking at the time, "we'll open another French restaurant because Bonaparte was and is successful."
But times have changed. The competition for the French dining dollar has intensified, both in Adams Morgan (Mintwood Place) and outside the 'hood (Le Diplomate, duh). But just as important to Shamim Popal, who will create the menu at the new place, she can't find the flavors of her home country at local restaurants. Too many eateries that bill themselves as Afghan, she says, tend to adopt the flavors of neighboring Pakistan. (We can only assume the matriarch has not yet set foot in the $20 Diner-approved Panjshir in Falls Church.)
With her own place, Shamim Popal will remain true to fruit-spiked and spice-scented spirit of authentic Afghan fare, a less fiery cuisine than the dishes tied to Pakistan. While her menu isn't finalized, Popal expects to offer aushak and mantoo, a pair of common Afghan dumplings, as well as stews, kabobs, rice dishes (such as the national dish, Kabuli pulao), soups and salads.
Like so many people forced to flee their land, the 59-year-old Popal started cooking her native cuisine only after leaving Afghanistan. She and her family had a cook while living in Kabul. "I never went into the kitchen even," she says. "The chef over there never liked anyone to get into the kitchen."
But as Zubair Popal, who worked for InterContinental Hotels, moved his family from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to the United States, his wife began to educate herself in Afghan cooking and other cuisines. Shamim Popal took classes with the chef at the InterContinental in Dubai. She consulted her late mother-in-law, who was a keeper of the family recipes. She wanted not only to learn to cook the dishes she missed but also to steer her family away from American junk food.
"I wanted my kids and husband to eat healthy, especially after we moved to the United States," she says.
Shamim Popal mentions a snack she frequently ate in Afghanistan: leaves of romaine lettuce sprinkled with a little salt and lemon juice. "Not even chopped" romaine, she says. "You take it with your hands and eat it."
Such a modest snack likely won't make the cut at the new 60-seat restaurant, which is expected to open March 21 after a quick remodeling of the Napoleon space. That date is important: It coincides with the Nowruz festival, marking the beginning of the Afghan/Persian new year. The annual festival — Afghans often celebrate it by re-invigorating their homes, their wardrobes, their spiritual lives — seems like the perfect time for the Popal family to re-invigorate one of their restaurants with the cooking of Afghanistan.
But what about the name? The Popal family has decided on one, it seems, but prefers to keep secret for now.
"We are very superstitious," Shamim Popal explains over the phone. "We think someone will put a bad eye on it."
Put a bad eye on it?
She searches for the right word, apparently asking someone near her.
"Jinx it," Shamim Popal says. "Some people might jinx it."