In Lorton, My Karma Is Good Karma
Friday, September 14, 2007
Better loosen that culinary Beltway a notch: One of the best Indian restaurants to open in the Washington area in years is well south of the Mixing Bowl in Lorton, in a neighborhood that was once known mostly for the auto train depot, and you'd better make tracks.
It has been a good decade for Indian kitchens all around, but My Karma Indian Bistro, which opened in mid-February, can stand up to the best, and beat most of them on price: You can feed a party of four just about everything My Karma can manage, plus wine, for less than $100. (The name, as the restaurant's Web site points out, has to do with the choices people make based on their experiences -- the Buddhist and Hindu more philosophical response to "luck" -- and my experience says a visit is good for the soul and the stomach.)
Though smallish and unprepossessing from the outside -- a storefront in a strip mall -- the interior is strikingly attractive. The decor takes its tone from a series of highly stylized photographs -- piles of brilliant spices, close-ups of hands with elaborate wedding tattoos and henna tracings, a silhouetted dancer against a glittering sky -- as well as walls dyed saffron, intriguing plaster-paper-like woven baskets and long "windows" of black framed mirrors on either side that seem to add elbow room.
The food is equally stylish in appearance. A pretty, little mixed salad, offered as a light complimentary opener, is laced with a golden mango dressing that packs a sly gingerish punch. Spicy bhel puri chaat, which in many Indian restaurants comes out as loose as trail mix and not much more intriguing, here is presented as a neat mound moistened with tamarind, diced potatoes and onions, and a touch of yogurt. The crispness of the puffed rice, chickpea threads, fried lentil twists and rice crackers was still distinct, and the whole medley was tangy with grated ginger. The lamb (or chicken) kathi roll is a yogurt-dressed tortilla wrap that is thinner and lighter than the more familiar kebab in flat bread, and it is served slant-cut and set upright like a giant sushi roll.
The menu is extensive, grouped into "courses" that include appetizers, tandoori dishes, curries, vegetarian entrees, biryanis and Indian-style Chinese dishes (and when you realize that the curry list is really seven recipes, each quite distinct, that you can order with the meat of your choice, you begin to understand the term "embarrassment of riches").
The wine list is short but interesting (Rapidan River Riesling is a great foil for heat), and the service impeccable and informative. As one party puzzled over the dozen or so bread choices as a third appetizer, the waiter offered a suggestion -- chicken keema naan, a puffy, two-layer disk studded with herbs and stuffed with minced chicken -- and then managed to explain, without sounding remotely condescending, that plainer breads are generally served only with entrees. And if you can squeeze in more food, the pillowy roti is great.
Most of the food is first-rate, in fact. Tikki, three silken potato pancakes the size of biscuits, are served with yogurt and a bowl of perfectly cooked, fresh chickpeas so fine they might have deserved top billing (and at $5.95, the dish is surprisingly substantial). Biryani is often tossed off as not much more than a tricked-out pilaf, but even the vegetarian version at My Karma was incredibly rich in flavors: cinnamon, cardamom, fresh coriander, mint and chili, along with whiffs of saffron, a dash of jaggery and raisins, and perhaps rose water. (The basmati rice, both plain and flavored, is routinely excellent.)
Malai kebab, slow-marinated tandoori-grilled chicken in a gossamer glaze of cream cheese and powder-ground cashews, is a stunner: rich and slightly sweet but not cloying. The classic lamb curry, rogan josh, is so thickly sauced with a tomato and minced onion gravy that it seemed some of the meat itself had dissolved. And the baingan bhartha was an indulgent slick of eggplant, not of oil.
It may take a trip or two to establish that when you say "spicy," you mean, as one waiter put it, "Indian spicy" rather than suburban moderate, but it's worth it. The delicacy of the heat, or rather heats, as the blends vary is a pleasure. (Chicken lollipops are tandoori hot wings and much better Indian hot.)
Vindaloo, the Portuguese-style curry sauce (from "vinho" meaning "vinegar") with a dark, slow-simmered tomato-onion base, is a great match for goat. Though My Karma also makes Goan-style curry with coconut milk, it comes only with fish -- historically a nice point, since Goa was a Portuguese colony on the Arabian Sea. Tandoori salmon, whose internal oils are sometimes leached away by overzealous marinating, here is predisposed in herbs and still tender after grilling; tandoori shrimp, which can be embittered by too-intimate contact with the grill, is similarly well-guarded. On my still-would-love-to-try list are the tandoor paneer, the homemade cheese; bhindi masaala, the okra curry; and the cauliflower parantha. And the butter chicken, of course.
A few dishes wouldn't make my repeat list. The navratan korma, described as "nine vegetables cooked in a tomato cream sauce with paneer cheese and nuts," is a strange sort of comfort food, rather like the insides of a particularly good chicken pot pie, only without the chicken or the pie dough -- the Indian equivalent of yoshoku, perhaps, those Japanese home-style transformations of such American imports as meatloaf and spaghetti. The one slightly disappointing offering was the Manchurian "fritters," a dish which, despite the name, is not a mess of croquettes but rather a stir fry; the shrimp version was just a veggie-chunky, sweet-and-sour dish, though with a nice chili punch -- unexceptionable and not illuminating.
But time (and waistband) allowing, this is the sort of menu worth spending a lot of time on. Just my luck.
My Karma Indian Bistro 9429 Lorton Market St., Lorton Phone:703-372-1888 Dinner prices: Appetizers $4.95-$8.95; entrees $9.95-$17.95 Hours: Open Tuesday-Thursday 11:30-3 and 5-10:30; Fridays and Saturdays 11:30-11; Sundays 11:30-10 Wheelchair access: Good