Two small, round plates descend onto a linen-clad table protected with a white square of butcher paper. One holds aushuk, a sauteed leek dumpling wearing a thin veneer of pasta dough and topped with yogurt and meat sauce. The rusty-red stew of beef and tomatoes is warm, comforting and familiar; heaped on spaghetti it would beat the ragus served in many Dallas Italian restaurants. The other plate holds mantoo, steamed, savory meat dumplings topped with the same luscious red.
Matt Pikar, the chef and owner of Nora, the new Afghan restaurant on Greenville Avenue, has been offering the same two plates for the past five years at his successful Afghan Grill in Far North Dallas. Before that, they were served at the Afghan Grill on Calvert Street in Washington, D.C. Pikar opened that restaurant in 2001, four months before four downed planes soured American and Afghan relations. The news was actually good for business in the long run, and a spate of press coverage mentioned curious and enthusiastic diners in the following year.
Pikar wanted a change, though, so in 2007 he sold the business to family, came to Dallas and opened a new version of the same restaurant. He decked the dining room out in pomegranate and mango and soon captured the attention of the press again. Food critic Bill Addison described the same meat-covered dumplings, comparing them to lasagna. The Dallas Morning News review goes on to praise many dishes you can still find at the Afghan Grill, and now at Nora, too.
Kadu pairs the same meat sauce with tender pumpkin. The round, thick disk of squash, at once savory and ever-so-slightly sweet, sits on a plate beneath a ladle of flavors that can be fascinating if you're new to Nora or Afghan cooking but might grow tiresome if you visit the restaurant repeatedly.
A basket of Afghan bread that resembles pita without the pocket is uninspiring, too. The bread is bland and slightly stale but you'll lust for the small white ramekin of green condiment that's served alongside the sliced loaves. The chutney, loaded with cilantro, lemony acid and subtly pricked with heat, could easily be mistaken for a salsa verde if the proportions were a little different. Ask for extra to use as a dip, or drizzle it over the grilled kebabs on which Pikar has built his reputation.
Beef in kofta (ground and spiced) and rib-eye versions, lamb in leg and lamb-chop versions, chicken, shrimp, salmon and vegetables all turn over hot coals at the Afghan Grill, but a gas-fired grill at Nora leaves them wanting a kiss of smoke. The kebabs get the same seasonings at both restaurants, though: a tapestry of coriander, cumin and black and green cardamom. The same flavors make their way into other dishes as well.
Sometimes the redundancy works, but other times the shortcut leaves something on the table. Lamb and chicken stewed in a mix of spices is added to many dishes. Try either with the qabili palao, which makes use of a savory, saffron-tinged rice. Pikar finishes the dish with soft carrots, which round out the plate with sweetness, but the meat and rice don't come together as much as they would have if the ingredients had baked together. And if you order the lamb or chicken with either the kachlao chalao (simmered potatoes), badenjan chalao (sauteed eggplant) or sabzi chalao (simmered spinach), then you'll recognize the same proteins over and over again.
Bulanee takes either the same leek filling from the aushuk or cumin scented potatoes and tucks them into fried pastry. The spicy chutney that accompanies the small plate is a rich, dark and tart counter to the cilantro version that's served with the bread.
Like many cuisines, Afghan cooking embraces its neighboring influences. Sambosa goshti is an Afghan nod to the East resembling samosas from Pakistan and India. Nora's version stuffs chickpeas, meat and peas into flaky, golden pastry. And dolmas filled with soft, mushy but lemony rice, and sticky sweet baklava are a nod to the Mediterranean cooking to the West. There's also Turkish coffee that is much too silty, and a firnee pudding with cardamom turned sweet.
There aren't any Middle Eastern influences in Pikar's dining room, though. The sleek, modern décor could be a suitable backdrop to a young chef's take on stylish, nouveau cuisine with a dark-on-light theme that carries throughout the dining space. Whitewashed walls accented by a pair of long, dark wooden boards do wonders with the light that pours in from the windows. The wood, accented by repeated groupings of long, capillary twigs, runs the length of the restaurant while chandeliers with thin, opaque, tinkling things illuminate like ice sculptures from above.
On a Friday night the dining room is at capacity and feels very alive. Middle-aged couples sit at the bar sipping wine, while larger groups fill out the dining tables. More tables spill onto the patio out front, but it's too hot for that, so a man pulls on a cigarette while he sits alone.
These aren't Afghan diners but rather a small subset of Greenville Avenue residents who have grown bored with the neighborhood's other offerings. The crowd explains a menu that is somewhat homogenous, toned down and less rustic compared to the kind of kebab house that would draw cab drivers. Consider the neighborhood, though — Nora is in a strip dominated by Terilli's, The Grape, Dodie's and other safe bets — and the cooking at Nora seems downright exotic.