Malmaison: Napolean's first, Popal's third
Zubair Popal thinks for a moment before talking about the role of his older son Omar in the family’s restaurant and culinary ventures. Zubair had arrived later to the ongoing interview, finally coming out of a major traffic tie-up on Key Bridge and into Georgetown.
“Omar,” he said, “he is the man with the ideas. He’s the ideas guy, the vision person, as well as making things happen, being there all the time.”
We’re sitting in Malmaison, the Popal family’s newest restaurant at 3401 K Street, and something of a radical departure from its predecessors, Cafe Bonaparte on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown and Napoleon Bistro on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, but not in terms of cuisine, all do feature French-styled food.
Malmaison, named after the first home of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine just outside Paris, is full of ideas. It opened quietly in January as an events site but is now fully loaded as a functioning restaurant and cafe. It also comes with the participation of big culinary and design names. It is a sophisticated as well as comfortable place.
There’s a bit of a chameleon quality to it all, a 50-seat restaurant from which you can look out straight by Key Bridge, the Potomac River and a stretch of as yet undeveloped land, with Georgetown Waterfront Park to your left. As far as ideas go, Malmaison, translated literally as “bad house,” is bigger, open-ended and electric with possibilities and opportunities.
The doors lead into an expansive multifaceted space: cafe-bakery, detox juices and good cup of early coffee for runners and casual customers, restaurant for lunch and dinner, and an events-bar-club space in the mezzanine with the Whitehurst Freeway overhead as a kind of humming presence.
Zubair Popal exudes a kind of old-world charm which he probably brought with him from his days working with InterContinental Hotels in Kabul, Afghanistan. His son Omar has the focused intensity of a man quite capable of multi-tasking, thinking on his feet, the phone ringing periodically, working out ideas as he goes along, paying attention to details. “With Malmaison, we went a lot further than before in terms of a space,” Omar Popal said. “It’s French cuisine, it’s cosmpolitan, it’s sophisticated. In terms of the bar and the mezzanine space, we can use it for anything, really. It’s a gathering place at night, a space where you can have exhibitions, weddings, anniversaries, charity events, the kind of space where you can bring together music, culture, people, in a very urban and urbane way.”
A measure of both the ambition and care with which the Popals approached putting together Malmaison is the fact that while the menus are small, and the restaurant seats only 50, there are major league culinary and design players involved. World-class, much-honored French chef Gerard Pangaud is the Malmaison consulting chef, and chef Serge Torres has designed and oversees the pastry menu, an important part of any French culinary establishment. See chocolate bomb with passion fruit sauce.
Pangaud is famous for creating and operating top-notch French restaurants in Paris, New York and Washington and has the added serendipitous affinity of growing up only steps away from the original Château de Malmaison in France.
Torres came from the South of France to the United States and worked with his cousin Jacques Torres at Le Cirque in New York City.
Clearly, days are both relaxed and busy at Malmaison. You can enjoy a light lunch --the duck confit salad, rapidly becoming a signature offering here, followed by a delicious dessert, or a recommendation by sage waiter Ben Jamil from Morocco. The atmosphere is contemporary, a very now and forward moving vibe of endless possibilities, but it doesn’t speak to the journey that brought the family Popal to this juncture.
Omar Popal always talks about the family -- not just as a family but also as a team united in their endeavors. “It’s not exactly us against the world but us making our way in the world together,” he said. “Us,” being father Zubair, mother Shamim, oldest brother Mustafa, then Omar, and sister Fatima, both with the U.S. State Department. Fatima Popal had been working with mobile banks in Afghanistan.
“I know everybody thinks of Afghanistan in terms of the wars and conflicts, which are still going on,” Omar said. “But my parents lived in Kabul at a different time.”
“Back then, I was working with InterContinental Hotels,” Zubair said. “I had done well there, and Kabul was different then. It was more cosmopolitan then, and lots of Europeans either came there or lived there. It was more European than anything.” But conflict and war -- the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 and all the wars that followed -- changed all that. “I decided that it was too dangerous for me and my family, and I left and brought them all out later,” Zubair said. There were stops in India, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates where he once again took up the hotel business. “But we finally came to the United States, and we all ended up in Northern Virginia in Fairfax County,” he said. “I sold cars with Bob Rosenthal.” Northern Virginia, in fact, hosts a large Afghan community.
The Popals did well, and always, he and his wife emphasized education -- all the siblings have degrees, went to school, and did extremely well in various careers. Omar was working with Merrill Lynch when he, his brother and sister came up with the idea of opening a restaurant.
“To be honest, I thought it was a crazy idea,” his father said. “Even with working with hotels, I hadn’t entertained that thought.” But Omar and his siblings convinced the parents who helped them launch Cafe Bonaparte in Georgetown in 2003. When they signed the lease, “it was an emotional occasion,” Zubair said. It was and remains a popular, classic Parisian-style coffee shop-creperie-bistro-restaurant.
Cafe Bonaparte was followed in 2007 by Napoleon Bistro on Çolumbia Road in Adams Morgan, a corner bistro with a thick menu, outdoor seating and an atmosphere more reflective of the diverse, culturally lively neighborhood surrounding it.
Six years after that -- with both Napoleon Bistro and Cafe Bonaparte settled into their locations -- came Malmaison, which, as the promotions say, brings “Parisian elegance and Meatpacking District style” to Georgetown. It’s also helping to continue the process of commercially repopulating K Street’s historic waterfront.
When you walk upstairs to the mezzanine, you appreciate the view but you can also imagine almost any occasion here. The industrial-style look is by Grizform Design Architects. There’s a state-of-the-art disc jockey booth, designed by Washington, D.C., DJ, artist and designer, Adrian Loving, along with DJ Ron Trent.
In some ways, Malmaison is a place that is open to transformation in terms of special events, but it has an inviting appeal for individuals, groups, couples and citizens in the French style, depending on the time of day or night.
“This is an international city,” Omar says. “There are all kinds of people, all kinds of flavors, all kinds of cultures. That’s part of what we had in mind.”