There's magic to the kebab, properly prepped, fired with finesse over glowing coals. There's a hairsplitting technique to properly trimming and cubing meats before stabbing and bunching them on a skewer. There's a deep secret truth to the marinating and the seasoning and the splashing with onion juice. There's a manner of working the coals under the grill bars so that the herbs and spices caramelize with the fats and muscle fibers without blistering the meats into lumps of parched peat moss. There's a magic to this.
This magic came to Afghan Grill chef and founder Asmat "Matt" Pikar through the tailings of war. He was in Pakistan. There, he witnessed two men in a heated tussle: an Afghan refugee driven from Kabul by war who was tormented by his landlord. The refugee was two months arrears in rent. Pikar, who once owned a house in Kabul, sympathized. He paid the landlord what the refugee owed. The refugee, who once owned a restaurant in Kabul, taught Pikar the secrets of the kebab as repayment.
He urged him to trim every last ribbon and pocket of fat from lamb to tame its lewd raciness. He showed him how to marinate the meats with the right blend of assertive herbs and spices so that the charred cubes and strips heave aromatic breath with the allure of blossoms. He showed him how to grill those skewered meats into deep, smoky sweetness—lust and comfort roiling in streaming bursts of succulence. "I made kebabs so good everyone told me I should open my own restaurant," Pikar says. This is what he did.
But Pikar refused to survive on kebabs alone. He wanted more. He wanted authentic Afghan comfort food, the kind spread on dinner tables all over Kabul. He wanted bulanee (fried leek-filled turnovers) and kadu buranee (sautéed pumpkin with garlicky yogurt) and aushak (leek dumplings with yogurt). The kebab was easy. This stuff was not.
His tutelage was idiosyncratic, adding to an unraveling thread of idiosyncratic whispers that haunt this 9-month-old restaurant originally called Charcoal Kabob. Pikar turned to his mother, who tutored him long distance. "The first month the telephone bill was $900," Pikar says. He was in Washington, D.C. His mother lived in New Jersey. "But I learned how to cook from her. Over the phone."
Armed with kebab know-how and his mother's recipes, Pikar opened Afghan Grill in Washington, D.C. It was 2001, just before the September 11 attacks. Afghanistan suddenly intruded American consciousness with rumors of war. Pikar vowed to shape his intrusion with recipes.
Afghani cuisine is an intersection of culinary spokes poking from Europe, Asia and Africa. There are dolmas (grape leaves swaddling rice, found primarily in Central Asia) and the sweet phyllo-dough layered baklava, a dessert featured prominently in the Ottoman Empire—especially in its hub, Turkey. There is hummus, spread over the plate like textured plaster, divots glinting the golden green of olive oil, lemon spurring on the finish. There is pita bread. Saffron rice is woven with thin threads of carrot, studded with raisins, spiced with cardamom, seasoned with lamb drippings—sometimes too many drippings, damping down the grainy fluff with slithering film.
Afghan Grill is a temple-ish room drenched in pomegranate red and mango-lassi orange girded in a ceramic tile floor cast in faux rusticity. There's an elevated seating stage with a low-riser table and thick ornate rugs where diners can slump and puff on hookahs. Ceilings are high and black, snaked with swollen ducts and barbed with support spokes. A row of large mirrors in faux gilded frames hangs from one wall; votive candles in holders shaped like frilly question marks stud the spaces between.
On a Saturday night, Balki sits near the door. A native of India, Balki is dressed in traditional Indian garb, which he jokes makes him look Afghani to Dallas eyes. He plucks and strums a mandolin piped through a Marshall amplifier, the power plant of heavy metal. Balki brags he has master's degrees in materials science and physics. His business card says he is a comedian. He plays pop tunes ("Those Were the Days, My Friend"), classic Hollywood score pieces (Dr. Zhivago, The Godfather) and country music on his mandolin. He laments he can't get dates on Saturday nights, which is a shame because, he says, he needs the fiber in his diet. He lip-synchs to his mandolin as he plays.
To his strums we chew mantoo, steamed meat dumplings filled with ground beef studded with onion and flaps of wilted cabbage. They're pillowy things bursting with coriander. Meatballs are finely woven and delicate, like chewing on loose, frayed silk. They're triple-ground into a fine mince and massaged by hand to thoroughly work the onion and garlic into the grindings. They're sautéed with still more coriander and salt and pepper before forming.
This cuisine has a distinct breath, an exotic pungency that is as alluring as it is forceful. It coils around your head and draws you into its peculiar sensuality.
Piktar admits to a saffron and coriander addiction, and he disburses it liberally throughout his food. You can see it in the jaundiced chunks of kebab chicken, juices flowing like spring water. Sabzi chalao, one of the grill's authentic Afghan dishes, is spinach boiled with coriander and simmered with scallions, garlic, dried lemon and dill. It's dark, deep and substantive, served with tomatoes and craggy strips of grilled lamb. It reeks of aromatized exotica.
There are salads too. Crispy shrimp, marinated in lime, garlic and ginger before it's wrapped in sheets of rice paper and pan-fried, crowns a heap of greens drizzled with yogurt dressing. Panir salad is a plated spread of feta cheese cubes, tomato wedges and chopped greens splashed with mint vinaigrette.
At lunch there is a buffet table, a row of steel chafing dishes with white napkins twined around the handles and blue Sterno tickling the bottoms. The lids are askew so that a small corner reveals the contents: meatballs, mattoo, aushak and saffron rice wafting that sweet raisin smell. There are drumsticks with the bulk of the meat scraped from the leg bone shaft, the rest of it pushed down to the knuckles so that all of the fat and skin and gristle bunch up with the meat scraps into dumbbell ends. Piktar says the meat was stripped because it was overcooked and dried. He left these remains to be picked over—an odd sort of buffet table shoddiness. The table ends in a plate of thick, gooey baklava.
But Piktar stakes his menu on kebabs. You see men stabbing the spike into their plates—spikes stacked tightly with meat and shriveled plum tomatoes, with green bell peppers with just the slightest bit of edge curled and charred, with onion shavings still juicy crisp even as they reek and taste of smoke. They work forks like plungers down the skewers to scrape them clean. Pikar got his two-months' rent's worth.
19177 Preston Road at the George Bush Turnpike, 972-818-0300. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 12-10 p.m. Saturday, 12-9 p.m. Sunday. $$