- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

When the Khyber Pass Restaurant upstairs in a small building on Calvert Street between Connecticut Avenue and the Calvert Street Bridge came up for sale in June, Matt Pikar decided it was the moment for him to go into the restaurant business.
Mr. Pikar has been in this country for 18 years; he has family in Virginia, but he still owns a house in Kabul. With the help of his family and his Russian-born wife (they met in Prague), Mr. Pikar opened his Afghan Grill on July 21. Two months later, Afghanistan was on everyone's thoughts and lips. As they say, timing is everything.
The Afghan Grill is a bit more contemporary in style than its predecessor. The low tables and little upholstered chairs are gone, as are the posters and photographs on the walls. Instead, there are simple, comfortable chairs, white napery on the tables and bare walls, except for a small, ornate mirror and two American flags in the large front window.
The restaurant serves many of the same dishes, but Mr. Pikar, the chef as well as owner, has a special touch with the kebabs and vegetables dishes he prepares.
Mr. Pikar learned to cook about five years ago while visiting Pakistan. He saw two men in a heated discussion; when he asked one, an Afghan refugee, what the argument was about, he was told it was because the refugee could not pay his rent. Mr. Pikar gave him the money for two month's rent; in exchange the Afghan, who once owned a restaurant in Kabul, taught his benefactor how to prepare kebabs. A lesson well learned, as anyone who dines at the Afghan Grill will recognize.
Afghani food resembles the cuisine of its neighboring countries. The kebabs are similar to Iranian kebabs, as is the flat bread and the marvelous, flaky rice, although in Afghanistan rice is baked as well as boiled and flavored with cardamom and cinnamon. Some of the vegetables resemble Pakistani preparations.
Everything at the Afghan Grill is delicious, from the wonderful, rich aush a noodle, vegetable, yogurt and ground beef soup (available without the meat) to the delicate firnee, a milk pudding sprinkled with chopped pistachios.
Start with any (or all) of the appetizers. My favorites are aushak and mantoo. They are like delicate ravioli the triangular aushak are filled with chopped leeks and topped with yogurt and a meat sauce; the mantoo are dumplings filled with meat and also topped with yogurt and sauce.
Kadu buranee is a bright yellow dish of sauteed pumpkin with garlic and yogurt. Bulanee are pastries stuffed with chopped leeks and potatoes, while sambosy goshti are fried pastries filled with beef, chickpeas and parsley. All are delicious and all are spiced lightly.
The appetizer sampler ($11.95) includes all of the appetizers except the mantoo and can be shared by three or four diners.
Parsley, mint and cilantro are ubiquitous in Afghani dishes and add a fresh fragrance to the stewed dishes. A spicy cilantro chutney served with the kebabs adds a layer of complexity and heat to the dishes.
The grilled kebabs are the stars of the Afghan Grill. All are served with a grilled plum tomato and some of that lovely, fragrant rice, topped with a spoonful of a subtly spiced tomato sauce. The chicken (breast meat), sirloin of beef and lamb kebabs are first marinated and then charcoal broiled with onions and peppers.
Especially tasty is the kofta kebab made of chopped beef mixed with spices and charcoal broiled. It has the consistency of a sausage and is excellent.
Lamb and chicken are also simmered with tomatoes, garlic, onion and coriander seed and served with rice topped with strips of sauteed carrots and sprinkled with raisins.
The Afghan Grill also is a vegetarian's delight. Each of the vegetable appetizers, as well as sauteed eggplant, can be enlarged into a main course. Alternatively, there's a vegetable combination of pumpkin, eggplant and vegetable of the day with rice. On a recent occasion, the vegetable of the day was a fine version of chopped spinach.
The menu at lunch and dinner is the same prices are lower at lunch and portions smaller except for the addition of a grilled chicken salad and lamb kebabs served over a house salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumbers.
The Afghani salad, by the way, is a refreshing delight. It's a mixture of finely chopped tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers, flavored with chopped mint, cilantro and parsley in a bright lime vinaigrette. Served in a soup plate, it's a wonderful start to a meal or a palate cleanser after the main course.
House-made baklava is good, and there's always room for the firnee, which is as comforting and easy to eat as any childhood milk pudding. The only disappointment was the weak Turkish coffee.
The restaurant has a full bar and a small, very reasonable wine list with Greek, Turkish, French and Chilean wines as well as American selections. A refreshing nonalcoholic possibility is a yogurt drink, similar to an Indian lhassi, made with yogurt, water and salt.
A savory meal at the Afghan Grill is a good way to remember that there's more to Afghanistan than broken statues and cruel terrorists.

RESTAURANT: Afghan Grill, 2309 Calvert St. NW; 202/234-5095
HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; dinner 5 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; closed Monday
PRICES: Starters $3 to $4; lunch salads $6.75 and $7.50; entrees $6 to $7.50 (lunch), $8.75 to $14.50 (dinner)
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
PARKING: Some street parking; paid lot across the street

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