Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Same menu at lunch and dinner. At lunch, buffet is $5.95. At dinner appetizers $1 to $5.25, main courses $6 to $10. Full dinners with soup, appetizers, main course, dessert and coffee, $10 to $14; with drinks, tax and tip about $15 to $20 a person.
The corner of 33rd and M streets is gradually moving west. It started as Trudie's Chinese restaurant, reopened as Fuji Japanese restaurant. And now, with two serious-looking doormen pacing before the entrance in sunny-looking turbans and uniforms, it is Archana, an Indian restaurant.
It is all so confusing. The uniformed men don't park your car or provde any apparent service, they merely pace. And the orange and green awnings over the front of the restaurant boldly announce the restaurant's name -- but it's misspelled.
Inside, the two-story restaurant with curved walls and once-uncluttered modern beauty has been swathed and swagged with flashing multicolored fabrics to look like a tent. And every corner, niche and stair tread has become a vehicle for some Indian artifact. It looks like an Indian bazaar populated with lovely young women in saris, who happen to be the waitresses. A big change from Trudie's, Archana blends the sophisticated with the awkward: it is a restaurant of elegance, yet with a credit-card minimum of $20, an automatic tip tacked on the bill unannounced and a note on the menu that all the artifacts you see are for sale. Tables are so small that ordering, as one should, breads and chutneys means that dishes must be piled on one another. On the other hand, with all that opulent decoration, Archana is very reasonably priced, and anybody would be hard-pressed to spend more than $20 in an evening.
The Archana Special appetizer plate, at $4.50, is plenty for two and a very handsome beginning. Crowded on the plate were a pyramid-shaped samosa, the fat and meaty fried turnover slightly heavy but rather tasty; an odd spiced fritter of grated vegetables that was thick and chewy and interesting if not delicious; several grilled bits, among them smoky-tasting shrimp, spicy red-gold chicken and a chewy ground meat kebab that was too dry. Some things were delightful and some not particularly agreeable, but the assortment was generous, topped with a thin, crisp fried waferlike papadum and decorated with a carrot carved as a flower. Best of all was the accompanying tamarind chutney -- a thin, dark sauce tart, sweet and haunting.
You can also order a smaller appetizer assortment for $2.50, or individual appetizers, most under $2, except for the chicken pakora -- which is plentiful but heavily spiced fried chicken ($2.50) -- and a very good but pricey shrimp fried with onions in a tomato-scallion sauce and spiced with coriander ($5.25). Archana also has two soups, mulligatawny and Madras tomato, but both suffer from tasteless broths.
You won't find much fire in Archana's spice repertoire. Its curries are fragrant and varied, one with predominantly cumin, another coriander, a third tasting of sweeter spices or creamy with yogurt. They are nice flavors, and they remind you that curry is a style, not a particular taste, that has endless variations. But often the dishes are bland to anyone revved up for Indian fire. One exception is Lamb Malabar, which the menu warns is highly spiced. Its thick, golden brown sauce lacked the multilayered tastes of some of the others. It was straight heat, and unfortunately the meat was dry. Lamb Korma, on the other hand, was cooked to a silkiness in yogurt and gently seasoned.
Consistency is not one of Archana's strengths. The shrimp as appetizer may have been succulent, but as a main course Shrimp-Do-Piaz were tough and tasteless, in a fainthearted creamy sauce. Among the tandoor-grilled dishes, all of them smoky in flavor and the typical alarming red color, skewered chicken was moist, and cubed lamb on the combination platter was excellent. But the large pieces of chicken tandoori were dry and leached of juices, though pleasantly seasoned.
Besides various curries of seafood, beef, chicken and lamb, Archana has a few vegetarian dishes, among them an oily but delectable tomato-red eggplant pur,ee called Baingan Bhurtha. And there are biriyanis, rice concoctions seasoned with saffron, dried fruits and nuts, but nevertheless pallid and unexciting. Even worse, the rice and dahl accompanying curries are tasteless and watery.
If none of it is outstanding, neither are the prices high enough to expect the outstanding, especially when a buffet lunch is only $6. Archana does, however, make remarkable breads. The dosas -- paper-thin and crisp rice pancakes rolled and sometimes stuffed -- are as long as baseball bats, and quite delicious except for excessive greasiness. And the pillow-shaped poori is here the puffiest, thinnest and most perfect I have seen. Other breads -- a bubbly grilled nan and flat, chewy paratha -- are more affected by greasiness than the dosas.
There are other sidelights to try at Archana, but none of more than passing interest: chutneys and pickles are merely ordinary; a sweet-tangy yogurt drink is refreshing, and mango juice is oversweet; desserts smell flowery but taste cloying and grainy. And the tea, one is embarrassed to report, is in tea bags.
The food is pretty good. But in Georgetown, with three other Indian restaurants on M Street alone, Archana will have a tough time reversing that site's history of nonsuccess. Anywhere else, it would probably be considered good enough food and more than enough show for the money.
Now maybe you understand why those gold-garbed doormen aren't smiling.
Next week: Hot competition from across the street.