Open Monday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., with plans to open for lunch. Major credit cards.
Food: Curried favorites and bread winners
Price: A feast for under $10
WHENEVER WE LOSE a few Indian restaurants in Washington, we seem to win a few. Followers of the Brighton Hotel's Shree Krishna still mourn its closing, but they have begun to console themselves at Malabar, which replaced a Persian restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue. Though the Malabar lacks the Graham Greene atmosphere of the Brighton Hotel's decaying elegance, it has an air of simplicity which serves it well and some special foods to serve us well.
Candles on the gold tablecloths, walls hung with a few batiks and ceiling hung with handsome pierced metal lamps make the Malabar presentable without being pretentious. The service is eager, yet manages to stop just short of fawning. And if you need guidance through the intricacies of an Indian meal, the waiters are willing to help. In short, Malabar is a comfortable and sensible restaurant with prices as muted as the Indian music.
When you embark on an Indian meal, you'd do well to get your beverages in order first. Malabar has a dozen wines, most under $7, and a perfectly acceptable Inglenook chablis as a house wine at $4.75. Nothing stronger is served, so consider ordering wine as a aperitif with appetizers. But the heat of the meal may be more suitably quenched with beer or tea. You could venture into yogurt drinks called lassi - sweet or tart - but ours were, respectively, too sweet and too tart, and no match for similar drinks at the Golden Temple of Conscious Cookery.
Unconventional as it may be, an ideal meal at the Malabar would be an array of appetizers and a couple of Indian breads, for these are what the chef does best. The samosas are large triangular fried turnovers plumply stuffes with peas and potatoes, spicy but not overwhelming unless you overdo the fiery pale yellow sauce which comes on the side. It is the short, flaky crust which sets Malabar's samosas above the crowd. Shami kebabs are meatballs, but not just any old meatballs. They are remarkably light and juicy, teasingly spiced, as an appetizer should be. Not quite up to those first two appetizers are the pakoras. These, depending on the day, may be eggplant slices or a melange of onions and string beans, dipped in a spicy chickpea batter and fried. Tikki kebabs are tiny, mildly flavored lamb bits cooked crisply and served on toothpicks. The fifth appetizer, masala dosa, is a rice and lentil pancake filled with a potato mixture. But Malabar's version is neither as lacy-crisp nor as deftly spiced as the old Shree Krishna's or other local versions.
Certainly you should not neglect Malabar's breads. Crisp pappadums come with every meal. But try the lightest puffed puri in town, a bare wisp of fried whole wheat dough. Paratha and chapati are flatter, heavier whole wheat breads, both tasting nutty from very fresh flour, and equally delicious. Paratha is fried and slightly flaky, while chapati is baked and a bit lighter.
Malabar's main dishes, I must admit, are less memorable than the accompaniments, though largely pleasant. There are ten choices, most served with picturesque yellow and white rice tasting faintly of coconut. None of the curries is particularly hot, but the red-gold lemon pickle can rectify that if your palate cries for challenge.
Chicken korma accomplishes what a curry is meant to be: a blending of probably a dozen spices from poppy seeds to cinnamon, with none of them predominating but relating a whole succession of flavors like a rapidly played scale. Ground spices provide texture as well as flavor, thicken and color the sauce. Another winning choice is seekh kebab, tart and spicy marinated lamb cubes strung on a skewer with peppers, onion and tomatoes. Smoky from the grill and juicy, the lamb was tender, thoughperhaps a bit too tender, bordering on the mushy and hinting of meat tenderizer. If visual spectacle increases your enjoyment of a dish, try the tandoori chicken, a whole bird split and grilled after marination in yogurt, flavored and reddened by a variety of spices. It is a sight (and at $5.95 a bargain) to behold, cooked to a rich red-brown and garnished with raw onion rings. Alas, it is cooked past moistness and pales beside the true clay-grilled tandooris of Indian cooking that are layers of chicken and rice spangled with everything from raisins to silver leaves. At Malabar it is simply a lot of rice, insufficiently spiced, with its meaty treasures too few and far between.
Vegetables are the glory of Indian cooking, and the mixed vegetable curry stood up well enough to its tradition. But mater panir, a potentially exquisite curry of peas and homemade fresh cheese, was here a dingy combination of limp peas with too-dense cheese. And saag gosht, beef with spinach, tasted as if the spinach had come from a can and then been cooked even beyond lifelessness.
Servings are generous, considering that the curry is meant as a flourish to the rice, which is the mainstay of Indian meals. Main dishes range from $3.95 for vegetable curry to $5.95 for the tandoori chicken or biryani. Appetizers are about a dollar. Side orders of breads, chutneys or lentil puree are seventy-five cents or less. Desserts are not prices on the menu, but both of them - cheese balls (rasgulla) and milk-based fritters (gulab jamun) in rosewater syrup - were dense and worth missing. A Malabar special dinner of any main dish with several breads and side dishes, tea and dessert runs $8.95, but since it does not include appetizers, you can do better by making your own feast. It is hard to spend more than $10 a person, even with wine or beer and tip.