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Indian Born and Bread

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 1998

  Richman Review


Turning Tables
The Gap doesn't cut it at BET on Jazz. This splashy new downtown restaurant, a kind of Planet Hollywood for jazz, has an evening dress code that forbids T-shirts, tank tops and sneakers. Thus one fashionable young woman dressed in a short skirt and a Gap tank was forced to go home and change before she could be admitted for dinner.

"Dressy casual" is the way one hostess later described the restaurant's required mode. She'd just appeared to greet us after the entrance had been left unattended because she was also on duty in the gift shop. Selling T-shirts.
– P.C.R.

They start arriving before noon, and within an hour the trickle becomes a torrent. Men in khaki shorts and open-neck plaid shirts, spruced up after mowing their suburban lawns. Teenagers in low-slung, baggy jeans and oversize T-shirts that leave them plenty of room to grow. Women in draped silks or soft clay-colored cotton tunics, some embroidered with tiny mirrors. Extended families toting baby seats and plastic-lined bags of infant equipment. A line forms along the buffet table, lunchers of myriad sizes, heights, weights and ages, every one of them of Indian descent.

Langley Park has become the hub of Indian lunch buffets. The newest, as well as the most elaborate, is at Tiffin. The spread (currently under $8, but expect the price to go up in the fall) starts with soup and ends with dessert; in between it offers three meat dishes – maybe goat curry, tandoori chicken and chicken simmered with almonds and cream – plus vegetables encompassing potatoes mashed into crisp-edged cakes or sauteed with cumin and herbs, okra with onions and tomatoes, and chickpeas in dark fragrant spices. Small white saucers are available for the condiments that make an Indian meal such an intricate feast: coconut and tamarind chutneys, lemon pickle, chopped raw-vegetable salad, dal and the soupy accompaniment called sambar. Yet the display that stretches along at least three tables doesn't even include the highlights: hot breads.

Lunch time keeps the bread maker in perpetual motion over the deep tandoor oven. He stretches a ball of dough much as a pizza chef does and slaps it onto the inside wall of the tandoor, where in moments it blisters and browns. The hot, flat bread is cut into four wedges and delivered in a basket. At the same time, waiters roam the dining room with golden brown rolled-up pancakes – dosas – filled with lightly spiced potatoes. These thin, crackly batons must be eaten hot, before their rice-dough wrappers soften.

Tiffin is an upscale spinoff of Udupi Palace, the bargain-priced vegetarian restaurant down the street. So far, it's the most glamorous of the neighborhood's steadily increasing supply of Indian restaurants. It's dressed up with capacious bentwood chairs that look made for a veranda, artificial dogwoods and ferns reflected in a wall-wide mirror, and three dozen tiny green and yellow cone-shaped lamps suspended from the ceiling. Its walls are lime green, its floor trompe l'oeil tiles. Taped Indian music plays just softly enough to allow for comfortable conversation. Waiters wear white shirts and neckties.

The food, too, has touches of extra refinement. Buffet platters aren't simply piled, they are arranged and garnished. Tiffin is a little pricier than many of its nearby competitors, with some a la carte entrees edging up toward $14, though most stay safely in the single digits. At lunch time, just about everyone opts for the buffet – it's clearly the draw.

The a la carte menu is far more extensive. The trick for a first-timer is to figure how to take advantage of the kitchen's strengths. Appetizers aren't among them. There's one exception, an unusual and savory Delhi fried fish. The small, dense chunks are barely veiled in batter and painted with a vinegary spice paste reminiscent of Spain's escabeche. Otherwise, the appetizers, mostly fried classics such as samosas and pakoras, tend to be bland.

Nor are meats the talent of this kitchen. Goat curry has a hearty, ruddy and agreeable sauce shot through with slivers of ginger, and the inevitable lamb rogan josh is fine. But they're not really memorable, and chicken dishes – whether tandoori or curried – feature juiceless, bland meat.

Keeping in mind Tiffin's vegetarian connections, it should be no surprise that vegetable dishes are the dazzlers. Hyderabadi bhaarvan baigan curry is small whole eggplants slithering deliciously in a thick, grainy sauce that tastes of nuts. The typical spinach with cubes of house-made cheese has the romantic name Jade and Pearls, and it's a seductive mingling of sweet and hot spices. Okra is succulent and faintly sweet from long-cooked onions and tomatoes, and chickpeas taste as rich and substantial as meat.

Most important, the sauces are all an excuse for more of Tiffin's nearly peerless breads. Order a dosa, for instance, and unlike the delicate foot-long versions served with the buffet, it will cause heads to turn throughout the dining room. It's as voluminous as a tablecloth loosely rolled to half a foot in diameter. Tiffin's naan, too, is outstanding. Baked in the tandoor, it has a yeasty, stretchy center and a faintly crackly surface, not to mention more flavor than most naans you'll find. Onion-stuffed kulcha is its match. But nothing competes with the puri here. It's a bubble of whole-wheat dough that has a full-grain flavor, and it arrives puffed as large as a sofa pillow.

Tiffin goes to some lengths to make dinner an event. As soon as you're seated, the waiter brings a basket of crisp, hot pappadums and a plate of three chutneys: creamy cilantro, tamarind and incendiary red-tinged chopped onion. Your dinner is rolled to the table on a wooden cart. Portions are large, and served so hot that a trail of steam follows the cart across the dining room. And to accompany the food, the menu lists 26 beers, as well as a few wines, lassi and a refreshing fresh-lemon fizz.

Tiffin is large enough to seat nearly a hundred, yet it's pretty, and aspires to elegance. Most endearing, its service is as attentive and personal as if it were a private home. All this and great bread, too.

Tiffin – 1341 University Blvd. East Langley Park, Md. 301/434-9200. Open: for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner daily 5 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $2.50 to $7.95, entrees $6.50 to $16.95; lunch buffet $5.95 weekdays, $7.95 weekends. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip $20 to $35 per person.

   
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