Kohinoor Dhaba

Indian
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Kohinoor Dhaba photo
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Editorial Review

Kohinoor Dhaba in Arlington
By Nevin Martell
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Perched on an Arlington side street next to Eads Park, Kohinoor Dhaba feels like a home transformed into a restaurant. The two-story brick structure is unassuming, except for the signs advertising the all-day, all-you-can-eat buffet. The blare of a flat-screen television running Bollywood flicks and the easy tones of friendly conversation drift down as you walk up the well-worn carpeted steps to the second-floor dining room.

The small space holds a few tables and a buffet that runs along the back wall. If you want to sit down during the lunchtime rush, you might need to wait for a seat.

Chef-owner Kulvir Singh, a 34-year-old Arlington resident, drove cabs when he first moved to the States in 1993 from Punjab, India. Then his chef friend, Ramesh Kundal, took him under his wing and gave him a job in the kitchen at the now-closed Connaught Place in Fairfax. “He taught me everything,” says Singh, who ended up working at the Indian restaurant for a decade.

Singh opened Kohinoor Dhaba four years ago. “It wasn’t difficult to make the transition,” he says of becoming an owner in addition to being a chef. “Every job is difficult until you know how to do it.”

He has composed a sprawling a la carte menu inspired by his Punjabi roots, but the $9.95 buffet is the way to go. There are usually around 10 hot appetizers and entrees, an obligatory (and avoidable) mixed salad, and condiments such as chili-spiced onion slivers, sweet tamarind sauce and cooling raita.

First load your foam takeout container with a couple of fist-sized, tricornered samosas and deep-fried alu tikki fritters made with mashed potatoes, lentils and paneer cheese. For your main courses, go easy on the dry, crackly rice, which spent too much time under the heat lamp. Concentrate on the capsicum-spiked goat curry, rendered tender in onion gravy that is based on a family recipe, and the faithfully executed, but alarmingly orange, chicken tikka masala. Both are well spiced, but never blistering, and all the meats are halal certified.

Plain nan is included with the buffet, but it’s worth splurging on the extra options cooked to order in the tandoori oven. A delicate caramelized sweetness hides in the folds of the onion kulcha ($2.95), while the garlic nan ($2.50) is dotted with aromatic microcubes that elevate this subcontinent staple.

The cooler in the corner holds a number of Indian beers, including Kingfisher ($3.50 to $5.95), Taj Mahal lager ($5.95) and Haywards 5000 ($5.95), which is labeled as “super strong.”

Of the four desserts available, the gulab jamun ($2.95) stands out. Two generously portioned flash-fried spheres of farmer’s cheese soaked in rose water-infused, honeyed syrup are well suited for sharing, though I was loath to do so.