Open daily 11 am. to 9 p.m. No credit cards; personal checks accepted. No alcoholic beverages. Public parking nearby. Prices: typical dinner for two, approximately $12 including tax. No tipping.
Even in the enlightened 1980s, "vegetarian" too often suggests endless bean sprouts and raw mushrooms or, worse yet, those little brown soybean patties cleverly made up to look like meat. Enough. It's time we carnivores stopped treating vegetarian dining as a substitute for something else and accepted it on its terms, which means accepting the idea that a meal can be completely satisfying--even "hearty"--without meat.
If you want to practice putting aside your meat prejudices and learn a new receptivity toward vegetarian cuisine, a good place to start is Siddhartha, a southern Indian vegetarian restaurant (now in Silver Spring, formerly downtown) that offers such a wide spectrum of tastes and textures you may never notice the absence of you-know-what. Besides, cultivating your vegetarian palate here is remarkably cheap--this is one of the few places left where dinner for two can still be had for about $12, complete.
But before you plan on celebrating your anniversary at Siddhartha, understand that it's a very modest place, almost excruciatingly so. You'll carry your own tray from the order counter to a bare formica table, eat with plastic utensils, drink from a styrofoam cup-- all under the merciless white glare of overbright light bulbs. Sound like the dining room in a seedy, hopelessly underendowed college? You've got the picture. There are other inconveniences, such as no alcohol. And they start turning out the lights at 9 p.m. sharp, whether you're still eating or not, so an unhurried dinner requires arriving no later than 7:30.
Anyone still reading? Good, because Siddhartha's somewhat dismal environment is worth putting up with for the food and the economy.
On a first visit, you may be tempted to take the easy way out and order the $6.50 complete meal. Resist. There's little saving over ordering Ma la carte, and you'll get some items you probably won't want. Most frustrating, there'll be no choice among the myriad desserts. So just relax and wander through the menu as though it were a brief text on vegetarian Indian cooking. At these prices, you can afford a few mistakes. Watch what the many Indians who frequent Siddhartha are eating and even ask them a few questions. (When we asked one young couple about a variation in a particular dish we hadn't seen before, we were invited to have a taste.)
In designing your meal, consider bhel poori, a cold snack dish that serves nicely as an appetizer for two. Miniature rounds of poori, the fried flatbread, are mixed with potato, crunchy raw onion bits, noodles and puffed rice, and served with a tart-hot chutney. Sev poori is similar but lacks the interesting contrast of the puffed rice. Most of the items listed as "savory snacks," the turnovers and fritters in particular, suffer from the Siddhartha's kitchen logistics: fried in advance, they're kept endlessly lukewarm in paper bags. You know what this treatment does to the french fries in the fast- food outlets, so you'll understand what happens to the "savory snacks."
The favorite choice of Siddhartha's regulars seems to be dossa--very thin, light pancakes, about a foot across, made from a fermented rice and lentil batter and rolled like crepes. They're available plain (sada dossa), with onion (uttapam), and with a curried onion-potato filling (masala dossa). Oddly, the lentils in the batter and the pleasantly sourish, buttermilk taste produced by the fermentation give the dossa a flavor reminiscent of old-fashioned potato pancakes. (Why not? Isn't Sanskrit the mother tongue?)
If you know and love the marvelous subtleties and complexities of the best Indian curries, you may be a tad disappointed at Siddhartha. The curries here are generally adequate--we found the eggplant curry particularly good--but they lack the excitement of those wonderful, multi-dimensional palate-teasers that layer tastes and textures with cream, nuts and spices. By comparison, Siddhartha's curries are uni-flavored and uni-textured. On the other hand, for $1.50 Ma la carte ($2.50 with rice), how many dimensions can you expect? To amplify the curry, have the pulao, a rice dish nicely flavored with vegetables and turmeric, and paratha, a flatbread that's better here than the somewhat heavy poori. A good meal for two might be built around a shared order of curry (perhaps with extra pulao and paratha) and a shared dossa dish.
The traditional counterweight for the hotness of the curries is raita, a mildly spiced yogurt-cucumber mixture, and it's excellent here. In fact you can enhance the balance by drinking lassi mango, a delicious cold yogurt-mango blend. Another irresistible drink is the smooth, sweetened masala milk, flavored with pistachio, almond and cardamom.
Most Indian restaurants offer the same few desserts, a little list that's just as monotonous and predictable as the standard cannoli and spumoni in most Italian places. Not Siddhartha. There are 15 desserts on the menu, and even when a few are out of stock in the self-service refrigerator case, the remaining array is interesting and delightful. Try sohan halwa, an unusual blend of milk, flour, oil and almond flavor. Or coconut barfi, a white, milk-based fudge with nuts. And ask for malai kulfi, an Indian ice cream made with evaporated milk, cardamom, nuts and saffron. It takes some getting used to, but in the end it may convince you that Haagen-Dazs isn't the only game in town. Since the desserts are prepared in advance, avoid the ones with liquid sauces, such as gulab jamun, which become waterlogged from sitting too long.
A final note. Siddhartha was designed for economy, so it may be unrealistic to expect more than self-service and plastic utensils. But it couldn't have been economy that dictated the police-station lighting. Those banks of unshielded 75- watt bulbs are simply gratuitous discomfort, needlessly giving the place an unappetizing look. At the very least, how about smaller, softer bulbs (which would save on energy costs) and even a few candles on the tables? That might be a simple first step in turning Siddhartha into the warm, cozy neighborhood restaurant it deserves to be.