Warm colors and bright flavors at Curry Mantra in Fairfax City

tom sietsema
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 12:40 PM

The recipe for the goat biryani at Curry Mantra in Fairfax City is a hand-me-down, says owner Asad Sheikh.

The Bombay native's grandmother gave the directions to his mother, who in turn taught Sheikh's Vietnamese wife how to make the fragrant meat-and-rice dish. Most recently, Thuy Lieu Tran passed the secret to the three chefs employed by Curry Mantra.

Sheikh says his restaurant's version of the family favorite is "close" to the original, but "nobody can touch" the one prepared by his grandmother. All this diner can say is, the chefs' rendition - layers of long-grain basmati rice and goat flavored with ginger, garlic and cilantro, a mound topped with fried onions - is welcome reward for making the 18-mile trek from downtown Washington.

The location might be familiar to area Indian food fans. Until recently, it was known as Star of India. Sheikh, a former fast-food franchisee, bought the business just before Christmas and turned it into a dashing display for regional Indian curries and a $9.45 weekday lunch buffet.

The walls of the 50-seat dining room fairly pulse in orange and gold, which is precisely the owner's point: Warm colors reflect the restaurant's signature curries, including a peppery dish of lamb and spinach.

Lightly fried patties made of ground chickpeas and sweet spices are a great place to begin on the menu, as is the fluffy bhel puri. The popular Indian street snack is a combination of puffed rice, potato, chopped tomatoes, red onions and a cilantro dressing that's both sharp and sweet. Forget the tandoori wings, though; they're dull, despite their verdant coat of cilantro, green bell peppers and yogurt.

Open kitchens in Indian restaurants are uncommon. Curry Mantra bucks the trend with an oval window in the rear of the dining room that captures long skewers of meat destined for the clay ovens below them.

"I want my customers to see what's going on in the tandoor," says Sheikh, who's clearly on to something good.

9984 Main St., Fairfax City. 703-218-8128. www.dccurrymantra.com. Entrees, $10 to $18.

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