First Bite

Where customers get the star treatment

first bite
Clockwise from top left: basmati rice, chicken tikka masala and vegetable pakora at Star of India restaurant in Fairfax City. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A friend and I used to argue about which is more important in a restaurant: the food or the service. He felt the food was critical, and he would put up with sullen, slow or snippy service to get it.

Not me. Obviously, food is key, but if I'm miserable or seething while I eat, what's the point?

At Star of India, I get both good food and attentive service. Owner Soma Pokharel, 52, has been in the restaurant business for nearly two decades. He knows that happy customers are repeat customers.

His latest venture, open since June in a strip mall near Old Town Fairfax, offers a comforting, familiar assortment of northern Indian dishes such as tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala and lamb korma.

The chef is Surender Kumar, who previously was at the late, lamented Connaught Place in Fairfax. That restaurant's building was razed in 2005 to make room for other development, and Kumar eventually ended up at Kitchen of India near Baltimore.

"But he wanted to come back to Virginia," says Pokharel, who also used to work in Maryland. Most recently he was the manager at Spice Xing in Rockville; before that, he owned Shangri-La in Bethesda.

His new place is small and tidy, with Indian music that plays softly in the background. At lunch, there is a buffet of about 10 dishes. A weekend buffet has about a dozen.

Vegetarians will be happy here. Kumar does an expert job with dishes such as chana masala (chickpea stew) and baigan bhartha (simmered roast eggplant). For meat eaters, the chicken tikka masala has moist, tender chunks of white meat in a velvety sauce.

Because most of their patrons are non-Indian, Pokharel and Kumar have toned down the spiciness in their food; if you want more heat, ask.

They also have cut back on the traditional ghee (clarified butter) in their dishes because, says the ever-solicitous Pokharel, "We want our customers to be healthy."

- Candy Sagon

9984 Main St., Fairfax City. 703-218-8128. Weekday lunch buffet, $7.95; dinner entrees, $8.95-$17.95; weekend buffet, $9.95.

Tom Sietsema is on assignment. He will return next week.

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