At Indigo, homestyle Punjabi cooking transports diners to northern India


Vegetarian thaali at Indigo. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Bollywood pop music throbs inside Indigo, the pulse insistent and intoxicating. A television mounted overhead streams an old Jackie Chan flick in which the actor ballet-fights some ripped dude who looks like the Chinese equivalent of Rambo. All around me are handwritten scribblings on the wall, on the door jamb and even on the cooler stocked with beer and soda. Then there are the aromas, an invisible cloud of cardamom and ginger that hangs in the air, teasing you about things to come.

The sensual bombardment inside this Indian restaurant feels as if my Twitter feed has come to life, with all the brilliance and inanity and soul-numbing distraction associated with it. Every square inch of the room clamors for attention: One section wants to entertain (I finally grasped the brilliance of Chan while watching “Supercop” on mute); another wants to educate (a crudely drawn map of Jalandhar, the owners’ hometown in northern India, dominates a wall); and another just wants to amuse (sample graffiti: “If you love someone, set them free. If they don’t return, call them when you are drunk”). It’s attention deficit disorder as an interior design motif.

Even the chalkboard menu is a riotous collision of comic strip word balloons, each one spelling out the day’s dishes and specials. The family responsible for this free-form expression of Indian cooking and barely controlled id is not hard to find: Dinesh and Nidhi Tandon and their children live on the level above Indigo. In a sense, the 22-seat dining room right on the NoMa border serves as both public feeding trough and family rec room. It’s not unusual to spot the Tandons’ 5-year-old daughter, Grace, roaming around the tables, explaining her favorite dishes to whoever may listen.

Sweet, whipsmart Grace may be a tad biased. Her mother, Nidhi, serves as chef at Indigo, where the elder draws on her years of Punjabi home cooking to pull together a rotating menu of dishes. The first thing you’ll notice about her kitchen is that it produces not a single oval of hot, puffy naan glistening with ghee. Instead, Nidhi specializes in whole wheat roti and stuffed paratha, the flatbreads common to northern Indian households. They’re like anti-naan: dense and wheaty, sometimes augmented with lentils, garlic or red onions. The bread practically slaps you in the face with nutrition.

“We wanted to present the food how we eat it at home,” explains Dinesh Tandon, Nidhi’s husband and the man who usually takes orders underneath a mango-colored arched window. Next to the arch is another scribble of graffiti: “If you enjoyed your meal,” it says, “ring the bell.” A bellhop dinger sits nearby.

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

If I were one for public demonstrations, I’d be pounding that bell with the regularity of an ice cream vendor bent on tormenting a leafy Bethesda subdivision. Nidhi creates dishes as if she were cooking in her own home kitchen (which, I guess, she technically is): Her menu takes shape, in large part, from the ingredients purchased that day, with a surprising array of complex vegetarian dishes for a family from the meat-centric north. (My God, don’t miss Indigo’s baingan bharta, as smoky as any baba ghanouj I’ve had.)

Nidhi is not trying to impress with artful platings, but with lean and potent home-style Punjabi curries, which don’t rely on cream and clarified butter as much as their restaurant counterparts. The difference becomes apparent with her butter chicken, which isn’t the dairy bomb found at other establishments. Nidhi’s bright, fire-engine-red curry almost flickers like emergency lights as it clings to the dark meat. Its hue proves deceptive: The sauce is aromatic, but mostly sweet and light of body, the lone dish here I’d dare to label a let-down. Then again, I love butter more than some like “Wrecking Ball” parody videos.

A common theme runs through many of my favorite dishes: a curry radiant of ginger and garlic. This one-two Punjabipunch helps add heat and fragrance to the lamb curry (with it big, sweaty chunks of meat), the bone-in chicken biryani (with its perfume counter of cardamom aroma) and the spicy seekh kabob (with its molded rounds of minced chicken, as lush as weisswurst).

The “G” men of spices also infiltrate the palak paneer, although their presence is muffled, as if ordered to tone down the tough-guy shtick for the delicate dish.

After moving to the States in 2003, the Tandons launched their culinary career by hawking dishes from food stalls, whether at Union Station or Eastern Market (where the couple still can be found on weekends). Their years as street vendors have taught them the importance of convenience (and the value of entertainment, which inspired Dinesh to first start plastering pithy quotes onto clipboards to keep customers busy as they waited). Whether you dine in or carry out at Indigo, your meal arrives in a clam-shell container or some other carton, usually with a bottom layer of long-grain rice and a side of soft-cooked and lightly spiced chickpeas. You could say they encourage you to dine and dash here.

Just as important, the couple has devised their own hand-held snack, dubbed an “Indiroll,” which strikes me as a variation on kati rolls, the burrito-like street food found in India. If you order an Indiroll with a particularly juicy interior — say, Nidhi’s spicy and succulent lamb curry with its soft onions and cilantro — the filling will threaten to break through the whole-wheat roti, no matter how hearty the flatbread is. It’s the kind of problem you can live with.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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