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After Afghan Bistro in Springfield, Virginia garnered praise from a trio of critics last fall, the only complaint among regular diners was that they could hardly get a table anymore. The unassuming strip-mall eatery—the first for owner Omar Masroor, who previously worked as a car salesman—is admittedly small. Its 40 seats become pieces in a nightly game of dining-room Tetris to fit as many people as possible into the space.
But this month, the elegant Afghan cuisine that’s been a diamond in the suburban rough will get a place of its own in the Palisades. Bistro Aracosia, named with an old Greek word for a one-time province in the southern part of Afghanistan, will offer twice the space and take the family’s tribute to an ancient cuisine and culture “to the next level,” according to Masroor.
“What I’m trying to do is preserve a little bit of our people and our food and our culture,” Masroor says. “I want to take our guests away from what they think Afghanistan is, from what they see in the news.”
With 100 seats divided between two dining rooms, the former Bistroquet space at 5100 MacArthur Blvd. NW will be able to serve far more diners than the cramped Northern Virginia location. After the spate of good reviews, Masroor says he tried in vain to expand the existing restaurant before teaming up with his brother, Mustafa Masroor, and cousin, Adam Noble, to look for a D.C. space. Masroor’s wife Sofia will cook at Bistro Aracosia, while the three eldest of Masroor’s five children will continue to work at the Springfield location.
Bistro Aracosia will bring classics from the family’s first restaurant, such as charbroiled rack of lamb (chopaan) and chicken lawaan slow cooked in an herbed yogurt sauce, into the city. But the menu also delves deeper into Afghanistan’s historic hunting traditions to offer game-centric entrees featuring venison, squab, partridge, and quail.
For those who still think Afghan cuisine is limited to kebabs, Bistro Aracosia will be Masroor’s grand gesture to prove them wrong. Unexpected combinations of spices—from coriander and cardamom to saffron and sumac—flavor the family’s dishes, which are brightened by fresh herbs and yogurt-based sauces.
Slow cooking coaxes flavors out of butternut squash and beef shank alike, while turmeric and roasted red peppers add color to sauces across the menu. Basmati rice blends with raisins and carrots in the quabuli palou, a version of pilaf that doubles as a side and main dish. Spices even make their way into light desserts such as rosewater and cardamom ice creams.
Staying true to family recipes was one of the reasons Masroor was leery of opening a second location where he wouldn’t be able to manage day-to-day operations. But once his brother and cousin signed on, he said, “Let’s go.”
“My biggest fear was not having people I could trust with this food,” he says. “Every family has different types of food, but my brother and cousin—we’re in the same family.”
Masroor also looked to his father for inspiration in designing the new and expanded space. Themes for Bistro Aracosia’s two dining areas—“poet” and “warrior”—came from asking his father how he would describe the character of an Afghan using two words.
The warrior room pays homage to the classical kings of pre-Soviet era Afghanistan while the other is devoted to the culture’s softer side, replete with quotes from the 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic Rumi.
Taken together with the fare, Masroor hopes the restaurant will elevate views of the culture in which he was raised. His family fled Afghanistan in the 1970s. The grandson of Afghan royalty, Masroor remembers the country he left when he was five for its contributions to civilization—algebra, architecture, and literature.
“I love seeing a smile on someone’s face when they take a bite out of our food,” Masroor says. “It’s about giving someone a good product and discovering the culture is not what they thought it would be.”
Bistro Aracosia, 5100 Macarthur Blvd. NW; (202) 363-0400; bistroaracosia.com