August Afghan Adventure
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
The Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC, continued its popular series of on-line events with a delivered dinner from Aracosia McLean on August 18, 2020. Aracosia is owned by husband-and-wife team Maître Restaurateur Omar Masroor and Maître Rôtisseur Sofia Masroor. Sofia leads the kitchen, where she has honed the culinary techniques of her native country and perfected the family recipes that she learned from her mother and mother-in-law over the past 23 years, while Omar oversees the front of the house, ensuring that guests are welcomed like family.
Members of the bailliage first met Omar and Sofia in May 2019 when they hosted the bailliage for a five-course dinner at Bistro Aracosia, their restaurant in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington. That night, diners were thrilled by the Afghan cuisine and the gracious service of the Aracosia staff.
As the evening began, members, guests, and family happily caught up with each other as they gathered on Zoom in advance of the dinner. To formally begin the event, Bailli Judy Mazza introduced Bertrand de Boutray, the Chaîne’s newly elected Bailli Délégué des États Unis, who joined from his home in Seattle. The new national president offered his regards, saying “I can’t wait to personally meet each of you,” and spoke eloquently about the Chaîne and its role in a time when we can’t gather in restaurants: “The Chaîne is trying to navigate this challenging time as best we can, and I have to tip my hat to Judy for being able to keep the chapter active and engaged, even if it’s virtual. The beauty of the Chaine is found on the ribbon that we wear. Symbolic of the Chaîne is all the links that bring us together.” He particularly welcomed the new members of the DC Bailliage, emphasizing “how much we’re thrilled to have you as part of our society. I think you are going to be enjoying the experience, the ambiance, and most importantly, the friendship that has been built around wonderful dinners. This is really what the Chaîne is all about.”
Judy then introduced Omar Masroor, who offered some heartfelt remarks that captured the great relationship between the Chaîne and local restaurateurs: “I’d like to take a second to thank everyone,” he began. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic; we are a restaurant; we’re a business and this means so much to us at this time, at this moment, for you to choose us. I know we’re coming into your house. I wish that it could have been under different circumstances. I know with your group it’s not just about food, it’s the ambiance, it’s everything. I hope one day soon we can get that going, too.”
It was then time to enjoy the spectacular cuisine of Aracosia. For this delivered dinner, Sofia had prepared six courses that reflected the full range of her culinary talent and the best of Afghan cuisine. Vice Échanson Ellen Kirsh had selected two wines from the bailliage’s cellar that paired exceptionally well across the entire menu: the 2016 Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese from Mosel, Germany, and the 2005 Prado Rey Ribera del Duero Elite, a tempranillo blend from Spain.
Omar introduced the four chutneys that could be used to accent any of the evenings dishes: spicy red pepper and carraway seed with a hint of sweetness; mango and chili pepper; avocado with yogurt, cilantro, and hint of vinegar; and the original Afghan chutney of cilantro and chili peppers.
The first course was Mazza Khameer, an assortment of steamed dumplings – mazza translates to “flavor” or “taste” and khameer translates to “dough”. (Judy Mazza and her husband, Allan Kam, thought this dish was perfectly named!) The paper-thin dumplings were filled with a variety of delectable ingredients – roasted butternut squash, leek and scallion, and spicy beef – each expertly seasoned to highlight the diverse flavors.
These were followed by Boulanee, a trio of turnovers. These are somewhat similar to the dumplings, but are quickly pan seared, making them wonderfully crisp. At home, a couple of minutes in the oven restoredthat delightful crunch. Inside, they featured potato and leek, mushroom, or sambosa – ground beef and split peas and topped with cardamon and powdered sugar.
Goat Qorma was next. The bone-in goat was marinated in house spices and braised with turmeric and garam masala and served on basmati rice. Omar noted that goat is quite common in Afghanistan. Prepared the Aracosia way, the result is tender and richly flavored. He also explained the multi-step technique that makes Afghan (and Persian) basmati rice so good: after being washed, the rice is soaked overnight so it softens a bit. It is then brought to a light boil, strained, and baked, resulting in perfectly al dente grains.
Veal shank mahicha with spicy risotto followed. Omar shared that this is a classic Afghan dish, with a history going back 300-400 years. The veal is slow-cooked while short-grain arborio rice is prepared with chickpeas, lentils, lots of dill, and a bit of fenugreek. The dish’s name translates as “fire,” a reference to both the temperature and level of spiciness at which it is traditionally served in Afghanistan. For the American palette, however, Sofia’s kitchen exercises restraint on the spice.
The final savory course was a kabob combination platter that showcased grilled lamb chop, rib, and tenderloin. All were meltingly tender and beautifully seasoned. Omar suggested that the cilantro chutney would add a bit of spice and acidity to the lamb’s grilled flavors. He explained that all the veal and lamb served at the Aracosia restaurants is free-range and milk-fed to avoid any of the gaminess or toughness of grass-fed, older animals, and that all of the meat they serve is halal.
Aracosia also delighted diners who preferred a vegetarian option. Those courses featured spicy risotto with eggplant and butternut squash; sautéed greens – spinach, kale, collard, mustard, turnip, fenugreek, and dill – all cooked with yogurt and served with basmati; and a potato, mushrooms, and greens dish. All were delicious and intensely satisfying creations.
Both wines paired nicely throughout the entire dinner. The riesling, produced with late-harvest grapes, was more fully flavored and less sharp than typical German riesling, enabling it to partner with the evening’s hearty cuisine. While still a dry wine, the late-harvest grapes provided a hint of sweetness that went particularly well with the butternut squash elements in the first two courses, as well as with the mild goat. Meanwhile, the tempranillo was intensely flavored but with restrained tannins. It, too, was outstanding across all the courses, especially with the veal shank and lamb. Ellen encouraged everyone to try both wines with each course to discover for themselves their preferred pairings.
Dinner concluded with two desserts. Firni is a simple, lightly sweetened pudding of milk, rosewater, cardamom, and pistachio. It satisfied that craving for a little something sweet after a big dinner. Omar noted that during cold winters in Afghanistan, this quintessential Afghan dessert is served warm with rice and saffron for breakfast. The second treat was an assortment of crunchy of baklava with various nuts. Both were worthy conclusions to a spectacular dinner.
Before the evening ended, Judy presented Omar and Sofia with the DC Bailliage’s “challenge coin.” (They had been delivered to the restaurant in advance of the on-line event.) Challenge coins are a tradition first established in the military during World War I. Each unit had its own coin that members always carried to prove their affiliation with the group. The DC Bailliage was inspired by this tradition and created its own coin featuring Washington landmarks – the Capitol, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument – along with stars echoing those on the flag of DC on the obverse, and the Chaîne logo on the reverse. The DC bailliage is the only one in the country to have such a coin for its members.
With more than 40 participants, this was the bailliage’s largest on-line event to date, with several members inviting friends and family to join them for this amazing culinary experience. Many took full advantage of the mild summer evening to dine al fresco, and one couple made the dinner a highlight of their “stay-cation” at the elegant St. Regis. The star of the night, however, was Sofia Masroor’s cuisine. Exclamations of “fabulous,” “seriously delicious,” “unbelievable,” “sensational,” and “brava, chef” punctuated the conversation throughout the evening.
We look forward to the day when we can again gather in person. In the meantime, the DC Bailliage continues to celebrate the camaraderie of the virtual table in the best tradition of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.