Merzi

Indian
$$$$ ($14 and under)
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Editorial Review

Good to Go review

"When you walk into Merzi, you will be surrounded by delicious aromas - try to focus on the meal you are about to order. . . ."

That is the first step of instruction Qaiser "Kaz" Kazmi offers on the Web site of his new British-Indian-inspired eatery in Penn Quarter, and his advice should be heeded.

Merzi means "choice" in Hindi. It's an apropos name for the stylish 49-seat spot, which opened Dec. 2. Employees behind the counter put your order together in a Chipotle-style assembly line, so things move quickly enough to get you in and out fast.

Meals can be formed as follows: Pick a base of nan (Indian flatbread), basmati rice, chaat (vegetables with yogurt and a tamarind-date chutney) or crisp salad greens. Choose marinated chicken ($6.94), beef ($7.47) grilled shrimp or lamb ($7.98), vegetables ($6.19) or tandoori-seasoned rotisserie chicken ($7.77). Then select from an array of garnishes and condiments such as black-eyed peas, yogurt and mild-to-spicy sauces (served warm) and chutneys (served cool).

Believe it or not, this decidedly personal, substantial meal will not weigh you down.

"Nothing is fried," says Kazmi, who says he plans to provide nutritional information for items on the Merzi menu.

Our portion sizes were just right. A lunchtime bowl of chaat with moist chicken and fiery onion-tomato masala sauce was satisfying yet light enough for hunger to return come dinnertime. Ditto a dish involving tender chunks of lamb paired with tamarind-date chutney. A pillowy disk of nan makes an excellent side ($1.99); a vegetable samosa, although plump and full of good curry flavor, was somewhat dry ($1.49). The lassi-like Mango Fantango, made with fresh fruit, hormone-free milk and cane sugar, is a creamy, heat-taming way to wash it all down (18 ounces, $2.49).

Kazmi is experimenting with the Indian cheese called paneer, as well as cauliflower and eggplant, to create more vegetarian options.

Born outside London, Kazmi, 42, grew up learning how to cook from his Kashmiri mother. He moved to the States in 1997 to work in technology, ultimately landing in management. In 2008, he decided it was time to pursue a long-simmering dream to do something else, so he quit to open his own restaurant.

Kazmi hopes someday to franchise Merzi, a possibility that seems likely given his infectious excitement.

When I'm talking to my customers," he says, "those are the best moments."

--Catherine Zuckerman (Good to Go, January 19, 2010)

Business story

Fast-casual Indian fare, recipe for a dream

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, December 6, 2010

During last week's opening day for Merzi, a fast-casual Indian restaurant in the District, owner Qaiser Kazmi estimates, he served up rice bowls and naan rolls to some 350 people. That's more than triple the crowds he used to attract at the Chevron mini-mart in Anne Arundel County, where he started out two years ago.

Back then, Kazmi occupied a fraction of the 1,400 square feet that now houses his 49-seat restaurant in Penn Quarter. But from the gas station mini-mart he refined his recipes and business plan to turn the pit-stop eatery, then called Kazo Kitchen, into a full-fledged restaurant.

"I met people who loved the food and by chance introduced me to investors," said Kazmi, who had quit his job at a telecom company in Baltimore to pursue his culinary vision. "I found people who believed in what I was doing" and had the business acumen to develop the concept.

Merzi, which means "choice" in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, stays true to its name. Guests can pick and choose what they want with their oven-baked naan or basmati rice, for around $8 a meal. Think Chipotle.

Kazmi considers his fare "deconstructed Indian food" because of such American-inspired offerings as the Tandisserie chicken -- tandoori-seasoned, rotisserie-style bird. He is particular about the restaurant's ingredients and makes an effort to buy organic and locally grown.

Kazmi says he's been impressed by the response of Washingtonians to his restaurant. "People are more educated in their understanding of non-American food here," he said, adding that the city's cultured demographic and high profile were selling points. "This is a great place to grow into a national brand."

Fast-casual restaurants have been making a big splash in the Washington area this year. Salad and yogurt bar Sweetgreen swung open the doors to three locations in the past several months. The owners of Matchbox debuted their hot dog concept DC-3 in the District this summer, while Pizza Authentica turned on the lights at a new location in Ballston.

Cheap eats have been popular during the downturn. Sales at the top 100 fast-casual chains reached $17.5 billion in 2009, a 4.5 percent increase over 2008, according to Technomic, a research and consulting firm.

Kazmi is certainly bullish on the niche market. With the backing of investors, he is scouting locations in the District and Arlington to open three more restaurants in the next year. Within two years, he hopes to have 10 locations in the Washington area. Down the road, Kazmi may consider a franchise model, but for now he wants to manage quality control and perfect the format.

"From the outset, I've been thinking multiple stores. And you have to, if you want to be successful at this," he said.