The Popal family has focused exclusively on French and European cuisine over the past 12 year with their trio of restaurants: Cafe Bonaparte, Napoleon Bistro & Lounge, and Malmaison. But recently, restaurateurs Zubair and Shamim Popal and their three adult children—Omar, Mustafa, and Fatima—decided to return back their roots in Afghanistan—a country they fled from in 1980 at the onset of the Soviet invasion—by converting Napoleon into Lapis Afghan Bistro. The revamped restaurant, which gets its name from Afghanistan's deep blue national gemstone, opens in Adams Morgan tonight.
Shamim Popal personally created the menu with family recipes and a bit of a European flair. Hearty soups with lentils and lamb start the menu, along with a number of salads. "Yes, Afghanistan has lettuce and other green earthy stuff (including those people like to smoke)," the menu informs guests. Other staples include stuffed flatbread called bolani and mantoo, which are dumplings—stuffed traditionally with beef or untraditionally with shrimp—topped with a split pea tomato sauce, yogurt, and dry mint. A range of stews, kebabs, and vegetarian dishes are also available. And don't miss Afghanistan's national dish: kabuli palow, caramelized rice with lamb, carrots, and red raisins.
Interestingly, Shamim Popal never learned how to cook her native cuisine when she actually lived in Kabul. “We were not allowed to go in the kitchen in Afghanistan, because we had cooks and they were always like, ‘Get out of the kitchen! What are you doing here?,’” she told Y&H back in March. After leaving Afghanistan, the family lived in InterContinental hotels across the United Arab Emirates for eight years (Zubair Popal was a director of sales for the hotel company), and Shamim Popal began to take cooking classes from a chef at one of the hotels. But it wasn't until the family moved to America that she began to learn Afghan cooking from her mother-in-law, who lived with them at the time.
Popal says diners at her French restaurants encouraged the family to open an Afghan restaurant when they found out where they were from. “All the time we heard from customers: ‘When are you going to open that delicious Afghan food restaurant?’ Trust me, I heard it probably every week in the last 12 years,” she says. “Recently we were like, ‘You know, why not? Why can’t we change Napoleon?’”
Like Napoleon, Lapis will also serve cocktails—all of which carry Afghan-inspired names and include flavors like orange blossom and cardamom. If you're not drinking booze, try a pomegranate rose or cardamom soda or cap the meal with a traditional Afghan yogurt drink with cucumber, dry mint, and sparkling (or flat) water.
Read more about the story behind Lapis as well as Local 16, which also recently began serving an Afghan menu, in this Y&H column.
Lapis, 1847 Columbia Road NW, (202) 299-9630; lapisdc.com
Photos courtesy Lapis