Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner daily 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until midnight). Reservations. AE, MC, V. Prices: At lunch, appetizers $1 to $3.95, main dishes $5.25 to $7.25. At dinner, appetizers $1.50 to $6.25, main dishes $7 to $15, side dishes and breads $1 to $3. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $25 a person.
The genealogy of our Indian restaurants is a complicated business. Moghal Mahal (even the spelling of its name is in dispute--the menus say Moghal, the canopy Moghul) was begat by Tandoor and Madurai in Georgetown and Katmandu (another with disputed spelling) farther down Connecticut Avenue. Its nearest geographical competition is Rajaji, which was formerly named India Curry House and was formerly housed around the corner on Calvert Street. (The old name was sent out to Arlington with some of the staff after the restaurant reopened on Connecticut Avenue.)
Anyone who can sort out all that should be able to cope with an Indian menu, which is ,a la carte to the extent that even breads, relishes and chutneys are ordered independently. And breads are so interesting a part of Indian cooking that they certainly should not be ignored.
Nondrinkers can start the evening with lassi, a chilled liquefied yogurt drink which at Moghal Mahal is deliciously perfumed and bolstered with ground pistachios. Or order Indian beer in a large bottle that will see you through a meal. There is also a reasonably priced wine list and a full bar that makes excessively sweet Pimm's cups.
Settle in with some appetizers while you puzzle out the rest of your meal. The appetizers might be a hot and puffy samosa of light and crisp dough stuffed with either vegetables, ground meat or smoky grilled and mashed eggplant for $1 to $1.75, or lamb marinated in spiced yogurt and cooked on skewers to a tender juiciness, then sliced to serve on lettuce, for $6.25. Both ends of the price spectrum are very good. In fact, all of the appetizers I have tried have been well prepared, from the light and crunchy but slightly greasy pakoras, which are seasoned so craftily that their flavors sneak up on you, to shrimp that were iodiny but lightly cooked and topped with a mild red sauce. The best part of the dough-or-batter appetizers, though, is the accompanying chutney, a pale green dip of coconut, mint, coriander and, according to the waiter, about eight ingredients. It starts cool and refreshing on the tongue, then builds heat and leaves you searching for bread to dull its fire.
Moghal Mahal's nan is memorable. It is light, bubbly, as airy and crisp as a bread could be, with a nice smoky flavor from the tandoor oven. Puri, the puffed pillow of fried dough, was slightly doughy, and the tandoori roti even more so.
The main body of the menu includes foods grilled before your eyes in the deep clay well called a tandoor oven--in a glassed-in, tile-lined exhibition cooking area--and there is the usual round of meat and seafood curries, biryanis and vegetarian dishes. Don't be tempted into solving your indecision with a combination tandoor platter; the items are better cooked individually, and listed at a much cheaper price. Unless you can't be swayed from lamb, try the tandoor chicken--murgh tandoori--which is not only the least expensive of the grilled dishes but an outstanding production. Half a chicken is skinned, disjointed, slashed to let spices and heat penetrate and marinated in a mild, subtle red-tinted yogurt paste, then grilled so that the meat bursts with juices and remains tender. The seasoning highlights the flavor more than contributing its own. This is chicken at its best. Shrimp are also grilled well, but fish is too fishy here, whether tandoor-cooked or curried in yogurt-lemon sauce.
Among the sauced dishes, chicken shahjahani is boneless meat in a red-gold, sweetly spiced and creamy sauce given a mild nuttiness from cashews. It was quite mild; in fact, all of the main dishes were mild despite our urging a little fire from the kitchen. Gushtawa, a Kashmiri lamb dish cooked in a clay pitcher, is also an intriguing interplay of spices sweet and savory; both dishes show the expertise of finely balanced spices that play on the tongue and unfold with each taste. They also show, since the lamb costs $12.50 and the chicken $11.75 for an unprepossessing bowl of firm and slightly dry meat, why people might be expected to balk at Moghal Mahal's prices. The quality of ingredients and hand work involved in a lamb curry with rice or shredded chicken in butter sauce doesn't seem as impressive as a platter of handmade tortellini or salmon wrapped in pastry that one might find at other similarly priced restaurants. This is not loin of lamb or lobster or veal with fresh wild mushrooms; it is stewed lamb and inexpensive chicken, no matter how delicious.
As for Indian desserts, at best they are sweet and heavy. Mogul Mahal's are far from the best, although the restaurant makes a very good pistachio-saffron ice cream that escapes the graininess and canned-milk taste of the other versions I have tried in Washington.
Dinner at Moghal Mahal can easily cost you $25 a person. You can spend less down the block at Rajaji, though probably for good reason, as the service is attentive but the food less refined. If you are choosing an Indian restaurant by price, you are better off at Rajaji's branch in Arlington, India Curry House, at 305 N. Glebe Rd., where the price per dish drops by an average of $3, and the food is nicely seasoned though the cutlets and ground meat dishes contain more filler and the chicken is stringier. The storefront dining room is cheered, though, by embroidered and mirrored banners and the service could not be more hospitable. When two people can dine for $25 they consider it a bonus to have the food served sizzling in an Indian wok and the puri light and fluffy, and can dismiss the tough butter chicken and the abysmal coffee.
Without doubt Moghal Mahal has gutsy prices for an ,a la carte menu. It also has environmental assets to compensate. For your money you get a fanciful dining room of white lacquered chairs with gilded details and ruby velvet cushions, a matching ruby carpet and brilliant painted glass panels on the ceiling. It is a dramatic dining room, exotic in its look and its aromas, a downtown restaurant uptown.