Jewel of India is a gem
Silver Spring restaurant pays proper tribute
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 29, 2012
My approach to Jewel of India in Silver Spring begins as it does at so many small suburban restaurants in the area, in the parking lot of a modest shopping center with a sign out front plugging its "grand opening" - never mind that the dining room in question has been serving palak chaat and tandoori chicken since July.
The sense I'm entering just another mom-and-pop fades the instant I stroll through the door, however.
Jewel of India appears to have taken some design cues from Washington's elegant Rasika. My eyes are drawn to a see-through curtain of glass beads separating a bar from the dining room, then to framed paintings of costumed Indian women, sumptuous reproductions of the work of the 19th-century Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma. My nose leads me to a buffet in the rear, a spread of more than a dozen dishes that's displayed as if a maharaja were expected for lunch. The waiters in their smart gold vests and the music that lulls rather than grates are further evidence of a place that sweats the small stuff.
Jewel of India, from the owner of the vegetable-centered Woodlands in Langley Park, pays tribute to a restaurant of the same name in New York (now a steakhouse) where Anand Poojary got his start in the business 17 years ago. His new establishment focuses, though not exclusively, on the cooking of northern India, a part of the world I was fortunate enough to explore earlier this spring. As I found in New Delhi and Jaipur, the selections here play up thick, creamy gravies; dairy in the form of yogurt and homemade cottage cheese; and spices including some of my favorite "c" words: chili, coriander, cumin and cardamom.
While the menu will look familiar to Indian food fans, the execution shows uncommon flair. Vegetable pakora, nubby fritters that break open to reveal yellow lentil centers and a burst of coriander, come with a cilantro-mint sauce that gets its tang from lemon juice. Masala calamari finds lightly battered squid, onions and bell peppers in a red paste propelled by chilies, ginger and garlic. Vindaloo, the vinegar-sharpened specialty of Goa in southern India, packs a pleasant sting, but is not so searing that I can't taste the lamb it excites. (Too bad the potatoes in the mix weren't cooked through.) Less intense, but pleasantly smoky, are clay oven-cooked lamb chops presented with a glossy warm salad of onions, cilantro and peppers. Chicken in a dark gold gravy sweetened with fried coconut and countered with roasted cumin seed gives a nice shout out to Poojary's native Mangalore.
Vegetarians will feel like first-class citizens with more than a dozen main courses to ponder. Someone at the table should order the mash of smoked eggplants, tomatoes, ginger and onions; with luck, someone will share.
The daily lunch buffet is a good value given the variety of dishes: more than a dozen on weekdays, and nearly 20 on Saturday and Sunday. From the chicken smoky from its time in the tandoor and pudding chunky with grated carrots, the choices all show care. Making a surprise appearance at the end of the line one day: Black Forest cherry cake.
Heading up the kitchen is Nabin Kumar, a native of Nepal who previously cooked at Tandoori Nights in Arlington. Supporting him in the dining room is a small cast of servers who balance enthusiasm with polish, with the exception of an emissary who forgot to bring us a dish one visit. (I'll have to go back to Jewel of India to taste its pickles.)
A short list of Indo-Chinese dishes accompanies the regular menu (and probably accounts for the many Asian patrons in the crowd on any given day). Hot-and-sour soup is much more than the standard bowl, swirled not just with fire that lingers on the lips but with softly crunchy snow peas and bamboo shoots. Dominos of pressed cottage cheese and chunks of bell pepper and onion glisten beneath their vivid red chili slick. There's also Chicken 65, strips of battered poultry that get their firepower from curry leaves, fresh green chilies and hot vinegar.
The breads - white-flour naan, flaky whole-wheat paratha - make handy sops for the food. The most seductive of the bunch is the kulcha filled with crumbled cauliflower, potato and ginger.
Not every dish is worth licking your plate clean. A starter of garlic shrimp tastes strangely sweet, and an entree of lamb cubes buried in a one-note almond sauce (and missing its promised raisins) grows tiresome a few bites in.
But more of my time at this restaurant, where water is poured from handsome copper pitchers and the design incorporates the colors of an Indian spice cabinet, is spent thinking about how much attention it devotes to the fine points. Also, enjoying how closely the food resembles my better meals on the subcontinent.
Jewel of India earns its moniker. This place is truly a gem.