Savoring the Simple Fare at Saveur India
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008
At first glance: Tucked into a ground-floor corner of the Trader Joe's complex at the south end of Bethesda and half-hidden by an inclined sidewalk, Saveur India is easy to overlook. But this is a case of good things in small, hidden packages: The walls are painted like bins of tandoori spices (cumin, saffron, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon) and dotted with small, bright prints. The restaurant seats about two dozen at tables, and there's a pair of love seats with a coffee table in one corner.
On the menu: Saveur India's menu is not so much broad as it is flexible. For example, you can order the chicken, lamb or salmon as kebabs over rice, as hearty naan (Indian flat bread) wraps with lettuce and tomato, atop green (or Caesar) salad or as entrees with rice, salad, naan and a side of yellow lentil daal. Curries can be ordered just with rice or naan, or with the salad and daal. The mint-flavored whole wheat flatbread, pudina parata, is sprinkled with coarse salt that sharpens the herb.
All meats are halal (approved for consumption by observant Muslims), and organic brown rice is available. Ready-to-go desserts, including rice pudding, carrot halvah (a dessert) and the condensed milk-and-honey balls called gulab jamun, wait in coolers.
At your service: A lot of Saveur India's business is carryout, with plastic utensils and oil and vinegar at a side counter. The plates are plastic, though with a nice deep lip that makes them easier to dine from than the usual flat plastic foam. The restaurant is short-staffed, and one night when a new waitress was struggling with the computer, the wrong chicken dish was served. But owner-chef Anil Kumar is quick to step out from the kitchen to assist. He may even make recommendations. (On a recent visit, he suggested the green chili-mint raita, which packs a serious punch, instead of the yogurt dipping sauce for my samosas and kebabs.)
On the table: Kumar formerly worked at the nearby Passage to India, and though the dishes are much simpler at Saveur India, the quality is above the usual carryout fare.
Heat levels are generally mild (except for the spicy raita), but there are bottled pepper sauces for the heat-addicted. Potato-stuffed samosas, three sizable triangles for $2.99, are first-rate; vegetable pakora, two almost softball-size tangles of julienned vegetables dipped in chickpea flour and fried, are almost as good. The lightly battered, tender rings of calamari shine with the lemon and sparkle with the green raita. Bhel puri, which sometimes comes out as an Indian trail mix with puffed rice and fried lentils, is a light, moist and slightly sweet cereal salad with diced tomatoes and a touch of yogurt.
Baghare baingan is a lovely dish of whole baby eggplant in a slightly chunky roasted peanut, sesame and coconut curry sauce. Aalu gobi, a cauliflower and potato curry, is chunkier and tastier -- and in a cumin-tinted broth -- than the too-common mushy stew elsewhere. The cubes of grilled marinated chicken are unusually large and very tender. Turned into chicken makhani (often called "butter chicken") in a creamy tomato sauce, the chicken is even moister. The lamb in the roganjosh (yogurt-flavored curry) is also carefully cooked and retains a meaty but not gamy tang. The rice is quite good, with distinct grains and just a hint of butter.
What to avoid: Tandoori chicken is okay but can be drier than the grilled chicken options -- and considering the bones, is less meat for $3 more. Lamb biryani tastes more like rice tossed with lamb and gravy than a baked casserole with brown spices.
Wet your whistle: Saveur India has a few house wines and beers; mango, salty and sweet lassis; soft drinks, tea and chai.