Shella Asef pushes through the wooden swinging double doors to the kitchen of D’Grill restaurant on Aungier Street, holding a small tray.
On it is a sugar dispenser, a metal teapot and a paper cup. “Green tea”, she says, placing the tray down with a smile, then goes to bus trays off of tables.
Most of the diner-style tables sit empty on this Thursday afternoon. Reflections from buses and cars streak the wet road outside, and bounce off the glass entrance of D’Grill.
A couple of people pop in for takeaway kebabs and burgers, and one man sits for a short while with a green tea.
It’s a bit quieter than normal because of the pandemic, says chef and owner Wali Seddiqi, glancing back at the glass doors from his seat.
“People are liking it here. But I know the unit is small, not that big,” he says. He’s been imagining a larger space, where people can bring their families, host events and gather.
And with a bigger kitchen so he can expand his menu of Afghan foods.
He’s set up now to serve fast-food, kebabs, in this small place not far from the night-life of Camden Street, and the students of TU Dublin – but he has a vision for a different kind of restaurant, with slower, more traditional food, in a family-friendly atmosphere.
“If I can get a bigger place, I would prefer to have fine dining proper, served in a proper way,” he says. “This food is kind of heavier, and you have to sit and relax.”
And serve green tea at the end of the meal, he says. “At the end, if you don’t have green tea, there’s no respect.”
Reminders of Others
Seddiqi places a collection of dishes on the table: a plate of Kabuli rice, borani, and a side salad. Asef follows with two lassis, one herb-coated white, and one orange-mango.
Seddiqi’s mother used to make the borani dish that he serves, he says.
“Fried aubergine, with the fresh yoghurt with black pepper, garlic sauce with mint,” he says. “And then tomato sauce cooked with onions.”
The tomatoes are fresh, with a sweet taste hinting at orange, and the aubergine is oily and soft. It’s covered in a mint and garlic yoghurt sauce.
On each table are a pair of sauces: one garlic, and one fresh green chilli. “If some customers would like to have it spicy,” he says.
The menu, on a glowing board above the entrance to the kitchen, lists other dishes: lamb shank with rice, fresh grilled and overnight-marinated chicken with tomato sauce.
Plus, fast food like burgers, chips and kebabs, which they used to serve between 11pm and 5am to clubbers pouring in from Camden Street – back when clubs were open, he says.
The place has a lot of regulars, Seddiqi says. “Some people are coming, I would say, there’s some people, twice a day I could see them. In one week, I could see them three, four times.”
His mother enjoyed his cooking, he says, but she hasn’t tried it since 2016, as she lives in Afghanistan.
“I have a plan to go anytime it’s possible,” says Seddiqi.
“It is hard, yeah. It’s not easy to go at this time,” he says. “I miss her.”
Asef arrived from Afghanistan two months ago, to study, and started working in D’Grill, as her family knows Seddiqi. “I was a reporter,” she says. “But it wasn’t safe for me to stay anymore.”
A Gathering for Rice
The Kabuli rice is an important dish, and has to be made right, Seddiqi says. “My mother was making the best rice, ever. I learned some of the recipe from her.”
It’s cooked in lamb broth. “You measure the temperature exactly, he says, squinting and miming fine-tuning a small knob with a finger and thumb.
You have to check it every couple of minutes, he says. “You have to bring the heat low, so that’s it. The secret of that rice, of the taste.”
“It’s not like just boiling the water. That’s why it comes like that. Otherwise, the taste will be changed,” he says. Shredded carrots, cumin and raisins are mixed in.
“This is our culture. Beside the rice, we have some other dishes, so rice must be there on the table,” he says. “To be honest with you, if there’s no rice, there’s no respect for the guest.”
His rice inspired him to open a restaurant. “Cooking is fun for me,” he says. “I was cooking for friends when we’re gathering, sitting, while I was cooking this rice, and everybody liked it.”
In 2012, he had made this rice while catering an event in Maynooth where a man told him the taste was the same as a dish he’d eaten in Taif in Saudi Arabia 33 years before, says Seddiqi.
“He says, ‘You should start cooking and serving people. Open a restaurant.’ He encouraged me, they, all the people who were there, they encouraged me to do that,” he says.
Later that year, he came across an empty unit in Clondalkin, and opened Afghan Grill.
“Huge big place,” he says. “More than 200 seats, more functions – even weddings, big parties, birthday parties.”
He had to move on from Afghan Grill, and opened D’Grill in 2015. “I know it’s a small unit, but still, we’re in the city centre, it’s fine.”
But it’s not the same as before. “There’s a lot of people that like our food, and they love to come, but families, it’s too small a place for families and kids,” he says.
Ideally, the new place would be nearby in Dublin 8, he says, but bigger. “In a good location, the main thing is parking around, little bit bigger kitchen.”
He’d like to seat around 100 people, he says. “I can manage, I can serve them no problem, because I have experience.”
He’d also consider opening in Tallaght, Blanchardstown or Lucan, for those who couldn’t travel into the city. “It’s a little bit far for them here.”
He’s not in a huge rush, he says. “Because of the Covid, you cannot really jump, you know?”
But if the opportunity came this year? “If I get the chance, why not?”