Curry Mantra doubles its pleasures
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Restaurateur Asad Sheikh and his wife were visiting India seven months ago, and as everyone who makes the trek to Agra, they toured the Taj Mahal, the marble mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in lavish tribute to his third wife.
“What are you going to build for me?” joked Sheikh’s wife, Thuy Lieu Tran.
The owner of the one-room, over-a-year-old Curry Mantra in Fairfax told her he had a surprise for her, something similar, back home. Unbeknownst to Tran at the time, Sheik was negotiating to take over the flooring store next to his Indian restaurant and use the space to more than double the size of Curry Mantra.
In April, he gifted diners the second dining room. Splashy in reds and oranges, and illuminated with wall insets that suggest the outline of the Taj, the glitzy setting is unlike the first and intentionally so, right down to the glowing panel of fun facts about India, the world’s largest democracy and home to 1.2 billion people. The way Sheikh sees it, customers won’t get tired of his restaurant if they have fresh decor.
And some new dishes to contemplate, a savory side effect of the expansion. I’m dreaming now of the dark green spinach cakes, slightly crisp from frying and perfumed with cardamom. Split bell peppers heaped with diced potatoes and house-made white cheese come with a nice bite, too. There are also chicken bites rubbed green with cilantro and garnished with red onions. A little entertainment accompanies the dusky chicken chettinad, which glides to the table on a banana-leaf-covered platter, and is joined by mellow yellow lentils, coconut rice flecked with peas and a football-size fresh green coconut with a straw inserted. Coconut water makes a refreshing balance to the peppery chicken’s heat, which creeps up on you. The entree can also be ordered with fish, tilapia that gets the same hits of ginger, garlic and cumin seeds and a scoop of zesty potato masala.
Sheikh works his customers like a pol on the campaign trail, determined to secure your vote. The compliment he says he likes the most is from customers who have billed him “the little Ashok Bajaj,” after the veteran Washington restaurateur with the golden touch. Here Sheikh is soliciting reaction to his broadened menu, and there he is singing the praises of the Indian musicians he has booked for the weekend. (The combination of tabla and flute is the aural equivalent of a massage.) The owner’s underlings go about their tasks with charm, give or take a glass of spilled wine. Their duties would be made easier with larger tables to accommodate the spreads some of us like to order.
If you’re the kind of diner who likes to explore lots of tastes rather than commit to one large plate, consider the $16 vegetarian thali. The round metal tray holds cups of chickpeas sharpened with fresh ginger, butter-rich dark lentils, sweetened yogurt and spinach dotted with cubes of cottage cheese that play up the range of the Indian color wheel and find even committed carnivores returning for more.
This is a kitchen where no two sauces or curries taste alike. Pistachios, almonds and cinnamon lend their accents to the velvety gravy of the golden shahi lamb, while coconut milk, curry leaves and mustard seeds impart a sweet heat to the lamb masala. I got stung by the goat vindaloo -- and I loved every pinch of it. Be sure to sop the sauces with some of the hot breads, especially the stuffed ones and the dome-shaped poori.
Not every dish is reason to jump in the car and drive over to this shopping-strip destination: The pakora are routine, and desserts, including tough gulab jamun and rasgulla, which goes down like spongy golf balls, are not worth any belt-loosening.
Even before Curry Mantra got bigger, I was a fan of the way it presented itself. Whereas so many Indian restaurants keep their kitchens hidden, this establishment featured a big circular window dressed up with skewers of meat destined for the clay ovens. And the cooking, from two full-time chefs (one representing the south of India, another the northern part of the country) was at least reliable and sometimes distinguished. Curry Mantra does well by the classic butter chicken and the fluffy rice dish biryani, best ordered with nuggets of tender goat and garnished with fried shallots. The latter dish is based on a recipe from the owner’s grandmother and places you in a home in Bombay for as long as you take to finish it.
Tom Sietsema wrote about Curry Mantra for a March 2011 First Bite column.
The recipe for the goat biryani at Curry Mantra in Fairfax City is a hand-me-down, says owner Asad Sheikh.
The Bombay native's grandmother gave the directions to his mother, who in turn taught Sheikh's Vietnamese wife how to make the fragrant meat-and-rice dish. Most recently, Thuy Lieu Tran passed the secret to the three chefs employed by Curry Mantra. Sheikh says his restaurant's version of the family favorite is "close" to the original, but "nobody can touch" the one prepared by his grandmother. All this diner can say is, the chefs' rendition - layers of long-grain basmati rice and goat flavored with ginger, garlic and cilantro, a mound topped with fried onions - is welcome reward for making the 18-mile trek from downtown Washington.
The location might be familiar to area Indian food fans. Until recently, it was known as Star of India. Sheikh, a former fast-food franchisee, bought the business just before Christmas and turned it into a dashing display for regional Indian curries and a $9.45 weekday lunch buffet.
The walls of the 50-seat dining room fairly pulse in orange and gold, which is precisely the owner's point: Warm colors reflect the restaurant's signature curries, including a peppery dish of lamb and spinach.
Lightly fried patties made of ground chickpeas and sweet spices are a great place to begin on the menu, as is the fluffy bhel puri. The popular Indian street snack is a combination of puffed rice, potato, chopped tomatoes, red onions and a cilantro dressing that's both sharp and sweet. Forget the tandoori wings, though; they're dull, despite their verdant coat of cilantro, green bell peppers and yogurt.
Open kitchens in Indian restaurants are uncommon. Curry Mantra bucks the trend with an oval window in the rear of the dining room that captures long skewers of meat destined for the clay ovens below them.
“I want my customers to see what’s going on in the tandoor,” says Sheikh, who’s clearly on to something good.
March 16, 2011