Tom Sietsema: Revisiting old neighbors in Bethesda
As newcomers settle in, Tom checks out a refreshed Passage to India.
A Taste of Bethesda
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 19, 2006
The bar for Indian restaurants in the Washington area is as high as it's ever been, which is good news for those of us who find the cuisine of that subcontinent so enticing. With the arrival of Delhi Club in Arlington, Nirvana downtown and the new Rasika in Penn Quarter, diners are discovering there's more to the genre than samosas, tandoori chicken and sitar music. So it was in that context that I returned to Passage to India .
No sooner do you walk through the door than you're enveloped in a cloud of sweet spices and whisked to a faraway place. Pretty white lattice screens in the windows help keep the sun out, while carved wood panels in the dining room lend an ornate touch. Passage to India is one of Bethesda's most civilized places to unwind over a meal.
It can also be one of the suburb's most delicious. Chef-owner Sudhir Seth cooked at the very good Heritage India in Glover Park before he set sail here in 2003. His current menu is divided into categories that reflect the breadth of India's culinary contributions. Thus North India is represented, quite nicely, by a robust goat curry, and West India gets acknowledged with tender morsels of gingery chicken in a verdant cloak of cilantro puree, a sauce excited with jalapenos and bright with fresh mint. My favorite appetizer is more nouvelle, a nutmeg-scented kebab of chicken: four soft, slender rolls with centers of white cheese mixed with jalapeno. Invariably, I round out a meal with one or more side dishes: Spinach pulses with chili powder, and basmati rice comes with a generous mix of nuts and dried fruit.
Other dishes suggest inattention behind the kitchen doors. The yellow mustard sauce that moistens an entree of halibut begs to be mopped up with a swatch of naan, though the fish itself is overcooked. Shrimp arrive in a vague tamarind sauce, and an order of yellow lentils adds up to a dreary, one-note puree.
Still, the restaurant counts more charms than disappointments. Notice how the bow-tied server took your order without taking down a word? See how fast the Indian-style ice cream ringed in orange sauce disappears? Passage to India is a contender, if not always a champion.