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The usual worries of a fledgling restaurateur—the books that never seem to balance, the customers with their endless requests, the difficulty of keeping on top of your staff—don’t really faze Ghazi Al-Kinani. His worry is publicity. Namely, the prospect thereof.
Twice does he tell me—once over the phone and once when I show up with a journalist friend, Bill, for dinner—that Zuhair’s Cafe, the Herndon hole in the wall that is, he says, the area’s only Iraqi restaurant, is not a haunt for homesick Iraqis looking to bond and commiserate.
“Food,” he implores me, “not politics.”
There is no mention, on either the sign out front or the menu inside, that Zuhair’s—named after its manager, the owner’s cousin Zuhair Al-Kinani—is an Iraqi restaurant. The war might have something to do with that. So might the fact that Al-Kinani has set up shop not too far from CIA headquarters, in nearby Langley.
Still, plenty of reporters turned up at the place to sample public opinion when Saddam Hussein appeared in court a few months ago.
An electrical engineer by trade and a food lover by inclination, Al-Kinani started planning the place in late 2002, thinking he’d found a solution to two different problems: the problem of relatives who had been surviving on food stamps, and the problem of where to go for the thinner, more shapely kebabs and the three kinds of kibbe (oblong, round, and pressed) he longed for.
Then came the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the novice restaurateur had another, very different problem on his hands.
“I had no idea what would happen,” says the big, broad-shouldered Al-Kinani, who finally opened his doors in July 2003. “All that hard work and all that preparation. I had finally gotten this thing off the ground, and then…” His voice trails off. It’s easy enough to fill in the blanks.
Bill and I are sitting with him in the tiny, fluorescent-lit dining room, knocking back shanina, a cold, slightly sour yogurt drink, as chef Salih Sultan, at Al-Kinani’s behest, gets to work on our evening’s feast. Behind us, a father and his four children sit down to dinner; a moment later, a woman, her head covered, slips discreetly through a side door to join them. At the table next to us, two men tear into a plate of lamb. The TV above us blares the latest hits from the Middle East. The scent of grilled meats wafts over the room.
“Smells good, huh?” asks Al-Kinani, letting us know, proudly, that he went “all the way to Detroit”—home to one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East—to find his man. Sultan came only after striking a hard bargain: salary plus an apartment.
A dish of hummus arrives, followed by baba ghanouj. Al-Kinani, assuring us that the best is yet to come, ducks into the kitchen.
When he returns, he’s bearing a platter the size of a corner table, an embarrassment of riches: three kinds of kibbe, two kinds of kebab, chicken tikka, falafel, a mound of basmati rice, pickled vegetables, and a braised lamb shank.
Iraqi kebabs differ from Afghan and Iranian kebabs, Al-Kinani is quick to point out, directing us to inspect the shape of Sultan’s skewered beef, elongated and wavy. Sultan, he says, has been “making this kebab all his life, almost like a sushi chef with sushi. Since he was 7.”
The chef begins by mixing ground sirloin and chopped rib meat with onion, sumac, and other spices that Al-Kinani says he can’t translate. Then Sultan forms them. “It’s almost like playing a piano, the way he molds it,” he says of the method by which Sultan simultaneously presses the meat and draws the length of it across the skewer. The kebab, being thin, spends less time on the grill, resulting in meat that retains its juice.
We dive into the kibbe. First comes the football-shaped kibbe, that raisin-and-beef pastry that’s a staple of many Middle Eastern restaurants. Then a kibbe rolled in rice and fried. Finally, the Kibbe Mosul, which sets Bill off and running about Mosul, the city. Soon enough, we’re in a deep discussion about the war—a discussion that clearly unsettles Al-Kinani. “Eat, please. Eat,” he urges.
The dish, flat and round, is a cross between a quesadilla and an Armenian meat pie; inside the layers of crushed bulgur is a mix of ground sirloin, cinnamon, and raisin paste. I’m reminded of a Moroccan tagine.
Suddenly, everybody in the dining room looks up. It’s the new video by Kadhim al-Sahir, the Iraqi Justin Timberlake—only with serious problems.
Bill and I are transfixed by the melodrama on view above us: The darkly handsome singer is being led off to prison. His lover, protesting his innocence, is shot dead in a public square by rows of hooded soldiers. The singer crumples to the ground in despair. But his lover, though dead, is not gone; she comes to him at night, a white-robed maiden in paradise. The singer is executed. Love triumphs at last when the Saddam-crossed lovers are reunited in death.
The men at the table next to us begin debating animatedly. Bill has us talking, loudly, about the beheadings, the bombings, and the lack of a viable exit strategy.
Al-Kinani frowns—at the thought of his war-torn country, certainly, but also, perhaps, at this intrusion of reality into his intended escape of a restaurant. He’d still rather talk about the food.
“Maybe when the American soldiers come back from Iraq,” he says, hopefully, “they’ll come here to eat.”—Todd Kliman
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