In the early 1900s, Jwamer Rasheed's grandfather made his living selling pressed juices in Kurdistan until a couple of Palestinian bakers gave him a better idea. The two men had recently moved to the area and introduced him to a pastry called baklava. Made with walnuts, ghee and sugar syrup, the sweet treat was bound to be a hit in the local community, they informed him, and they offered to show him how to make it. As the elder Rasheed, Saie, perfected his dough-making technique, he also figured out ways to improve the delicacy by using pistachios and local honey. Not only was he able to make a career out of his newfound trade, he became immensely successful, launching a mini-baklava empire in Kurdistan and northern Iraq. His bakery was so famous, it became a must-stop for visiting dignitaries, earning him the Arabic equivalent nickname of "Mr. Baklava" throughout the region.
Now, a little more than 100 years later, that legacy lives on at Afandi Sweets & Cafe, the bakery and restaurant Jwamer Rasheed and his wife opened three months ago in Lindenwood Park. Located in the former River's Edge Social just east of the River Des Peres, Afandi is the stunning result of the deep culinary tradition Rasheed's grandfather passed on to his seven sons, who then passed it on to theirs. Over the years, this heritage has morphed into a family business, with Rasheed's father, uncles and two other brothers each either helping to operate the small chain of bakeries in and around Kurdistan or branching off on their own, like his father did in 1962.
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Early on, Rasheed embraced this birthright, going in with his dad to his bakery from a young age and learning to make dough at only ten years old. Rasheed went on to become a pastry chef in his own right, a career he carried with him when he moved many years ago to San Diego, and eventually St. Louis, which is where his wife is from. Here, Rasheed served as the pastry chef at the former Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown St. Louis, then went on to be a bakery trainer for St. Louis Bread Co.
After getting out of the business for a few years to work for the government, Rasheed decided that the time had come for him to get back to cooking, though this time with a restaurant of his own. Like his brothers who run bakeries in Kurdistan and Sweden, he felt that he wanted to share his family's rich heritage with his community, and he set out to make Afandi, which roughly means "master," a venue for showcasing their tradition.
This is evident when you walk into the surprisingly cozy building and enter into a magical pastry land filled with every style of baklava you can imagine. Outfitted in brick and wood, the front room of Afandi is filled with backlit pastry cases, each stuffed to the brim with gorgeous sweet treats made with everything from walnuts to almonds to pistachios to cashews (Rasheed even serves nut-free versions for those with allergies). This, alone, is worth a visit to Afandi, but it's only part of the story, which reveals itself as you walk into the main dining room.
Here, a brick hearth, vintage woodwork and Kurdish decor set a warm scene for Rasheed's savory dishes, which prove to be every bit as stunning as his pastries. He makes his talent known out of the gate with appetizers like kibbeh, a cracked wheat and beef fritter that tastes like a cinnamon- and tallow-infused hush puppy. It's so deeply savory, but there is a whisper of baking spice on the finish that leaves you wanting to take bite after bite trying to wrap your head around all of the flavors that are going on in the dish.
Iraqi makhlama is another excellent first course. For this dish, Rasheed sautés ground beef and spices, places the flavorful meat into a cast iron pan, and tops it with two over easy eggs that mingle with the beef to form a rich, beefy sauce. You can scoop it onto pita, but it's so delicious I found myself not being able to make it that far and just ate it from the spoon.
Even the hummus is special at Afandi — so creamy and velvety and accented with a heaping amount of tahini. It's a dish that, though you've had it a million times, you feel like you are tasting for the first.
Rasheed shows off both his pastry and savory skills on the flatbreads, baguette-length wood-fired breads filled with a variety of toppings. The lahm b'ajin version consists of a flat, flaky cracker-like crust — what Imo's dreams it could be — topped with ground lamb accented with tomatoes and onions and seasoned with both sweet and savory spices. Mint accents the dish, providing a pop of freshness that complements the lamb. The cheese manaqish, a slightly puffier, pita-like bread, is shaped into a foot-and-a-half-long form that resembles a canoe. The entire floor of the bread is covered in molten, salty white cheese that has a subtle pleasant funk to it.
Entrees at Afandi are one delight after another. A mixed grill of different meats features tender, marinated lamb, a lightly spiced kofta kabob made from ground beef and lamb, and shish tawook; the latter, made with marinated chicken thighs rather than cubes of breast meat as is often found, is shockingly succulent and stole the show. A platter of fried red snapper was another unexpected thrill. Here, the whole fish is dusted in seasoned breading and fried so that the skin gets the crispy, battered effect you get from fried chicken. Underneath, the delicate meat tasted as fresh as if we were dining on the coast. A lamb shank, served in a dish of its own cooking liquid, is a must-try dish, not only for the delicious fall-off-the-bone meat, but for the jus itself, a warm, comforting nectar that is so outstanding on its own, you wish Rasheed would bottle it up and sell it by the gallon.
Rasheed could have built a culinary empire on that cooking jus alone, though what makes Afandi so thrilling is to witness the breadth of his talents — skills that don't just come from a natural knack alone, but are the result of a deep heritage his family has cultivated over generations. He honors those traditions so fully at Afandi, which is why dining at this brilliant gem feels like such a privilege.
Afandi Sweets & Cafe
6997 Chippewa Street, 314-359-5144.
Tue.-Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Closed Mondays.)
Lamb shank $14.99
Cheese manaqish $7.99
Iraqi makhlama $9.99
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