First Bite: Malgudi in Glover Park

March 29, 2013

Since February, an attendant at the door leading to the second-story Heritage India in Glover Park has been offering arrivals a choice of menus. One option sends customers upstairs, for the expected tandoori chicken and Goan curry. The other menu features the cooking of southern India and keeps patrons on the first level, now known as Malgudi.

Stay grounded. Malgudi makes some of the most intriguing vegetarian food this side of the two Rasika restaurants. The evidence appears with a snack of what look like hush puppies but turn out to be Mysore bonda, fritters whipped up from rice and lentil batters and flavored with chilies and fresh coconut in their fluffy middles. Further proof you won’t miss meat: cauliflower florets rolled in rice batter and fried to a fine crackle with ginger, garlic and chilies. There are fine dosas, too, in nearly a dozen styles.

Although there are pleasing meat dishes in the mix — lamb “pepper fry” in a thick and sticky gravy of curry leaves and such comes to mind — my fork returned more often to the vegetarian plates. A caveat is the beautiful poblano pepper stuffed with spicy lamb, an appetizer big enough to qualify as a main course and, in Sri Lankan rather than Indian fashion, grilled rather than fried.

The food for Malgudi is made in a kitchen shared by Heritage India, albeit in a separate section, says Sanjeev Tuli, who co-owns both brands and once ran a hotel in Madras.

The space occupied by his latest attraction has seen a lot of changes since Heritage India launched in 1999. It has been a bar, a party space, an art gallery, even a Thai restaurant, Heritage Asia.

I like the current incarnation best. Pillows soften the banquettes, and antique paintings from Thanjavur (Tanjore), a center of South Indian religion and design, add a regal touch. Genuine gold leaf in the art helps.

This diner struck gold of a different sort on two recent visits, not just with much of the food but with an authoritative guide: Mitul Tuli, Sanjeev’s wife and business partner and a frequent presence at Malgudi. Every dish I tried on her watch was accompanied by welcome narration.

“It’s eaten by the whole of south India at the end of the meal, as a digestive,” she said in introducing thayir sadam, a bowl of chilled and milky rice scattered with curry leaves, fresh green chilies and mustard seed. Lucky souls, I thought as I spooned again and again into the cream crossed with fireworks.

2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-3120. Entrees, $7.95 to $14.95.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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