Take McDonald's efficiency, add cafeteria prices and tack on an authentically Indian vegetarian menu. The result? Siddhartha, downtown Washington's fledgling Indian eatery.
Siddhartha, a self-service operation, certainly attempts to make ordering easy and all but makes the decision for us: Neat rows of stuffed savories are displayed in little waxed bags behind a display window, and pictures of the combination platters are hung above the menu on the wall. Descriptions of puffed pooris, pancake-thin parathas and crisp, wafery papads -- intriguing Indian breads all -- fill the menu, which is as educational as it is delectable.
And even though Siddhartha resembles a fast food spot, there abound small details that nonetheless add up to an authentic and enjoyable meal: the woman behind the counter wears a sari, and the background music is Eastern.
The $5 curry dinner, a filling bargain, features a representative sampling of the menu: There are about a dozen different curries to select from, including a fine spinach and feta combination, a sublime, slightly salty eggplant stew, and a thin and runny lentil concoction. To your choice are added a tasty pilaf of vegetable-flecked rice; addictive and crackery papad; a pool of cool, onion-flecked yogurt; a dab of nondescript chutney, and two corn fritters -- as heavy as golf balls but with good flavor. A scaled-down version of the combination plate, which includes a half portion of any curry dish and less bread, is offered for $3.50.
Alternately, there is a homey mix from which a generous snack or light meal could be constructed. Among the best of those are batata wada -- a deep-fried ball of seasoned mashed potatoes -- and the pea- and potato-stuffed samosas, their delicate golden color and texture attesting to this restaurant's skill in the frying department.
Heftier but just as delicious are the pancakes -- masala dosa and Mysore masala dosa -- delicate and crisp, tasting slightly of cheese and stuffed with a mixture of peppery cubed potatoes.
And for a bite to eat on the run, the Indian version of trail mix, chivda, proved deliciously different.
In general, the fare is spicy but not fiery; the menu notes that the intensity of some items can be upped to suit one's taste. It's possible to test one's limits with condiments such as a side dish of peanutty coconut or the chili-laced green dipping sauce that can be had on request.
Beverages span from a syrupy bottled mango juice to yogurt-based lassi, which comes three ways: plain, sweet or salty. Masala milk, a blend of almonds, pistachios and cardamom-infused milk, is an unusually fine foil to the food's mellow spiciness, if something of an acquired taste.
You can sate a sweet tooth with confections such as gulab jamun, which resembles doughnut holes steeped in an intensly sweet golden syrup, or the restaurant's satisfactory version of rice pudding known as kheer.
Pretty good food and pretty low prices are Siddhartha's most attractive features. That the food is Indian and the location is downtown merely serve as icing on the cake.