Passage to India Brookfield Plaza 7056 Spring Garden Dr., Springfield 451-6869 Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Lunch appetizers, 75 cents to $1.75; entrees, $3.50 to $6.96. Dinner appetizers, 95 cents to $5.25; entrees, $3.95 to $8.25. Cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express. No nonsmoking section.
First came the book, then the movie and now a Northern Virginia restaurant. Although this Passage to India is not of epic proportions, it's satisfying in its own low-key way, featuring usually well-executed, authentic dishes at reasonable prices.
There is a warm, simple formality in the cozy, 44-seat dining room -- modern chairs with black lacquer frames and mauve upholstery, pink brocade-like wallcovering, and maroon tablecloths with contrasting mauve napkins. A few Indian artifacts -- a series of intricate wood carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses, macrame hangings and a small marble copy of the Taj Mahal -- provide appropriate touches.
The food is characterized by authentically complex spice blends that can range in intensity from mild to fiery. Based on recent visits, the kitchen does not always make sharp distinctions between levels of spiciness. For example, while requests for "mild" dishes produced correspondingly tame results, the "medium" ones were virtually indistinguishable from the "hot."
A perfect foil for the spiciness is the soothing yogurt drink lassi. I prefer the sweet lassi to the salty version, which highlights the sour tang of the yogurt. There are Indian beers, Kingfisher and Golden Eagle, which are not among my favorites, as well as other imported and domestic varieties, and a few wines. A mango shake is listed on the menu, although it wasn't available during my visits.
Indian food, with its array of spices, textures and hot/cool contrasts, lends itself to family-style sharing. Fortify the meat entrees with a variety of vegetarian curries and condiments such as the wonderfully gingery lentils (makhni daal), the earthy chunks of potato mixed with spinach (faloo saag), the hot lemon pickle, and the cooling cucumbers in yogurt (raita).
In addition, an Indian meal would not be complete without bread, and here there are five good choices -- doughy, tandoori-baked naan, flat and flaky tandoori roti, griddle-cooked paratha and chapati, and the showy, pillow-like fresh puri. To sample them all, try the combination plate ($3.50). The brittle wafer, poppadum, served at the beginning of the meal, is made from a flour of dried legumes. The version here is rather plain, made without black pepper and cooked without oil.
The only soup recently has been an excellent yellow lentil infused with cumin and, occasionally, the nutty aroma of fried mustard seeds. Frying the seeds, I was told, is confined to off-peak hours because of the havoc it creates in the kitchen -- the seeds have a tendency to explode like popcorn, flying through the air and landing in other dishes.
For appetizers, a deliciously spiced minced beef appears in two of the best choicest: the seek kabab and the meat samosa, where it is wrapped in a triangular pastry shell. The seek kabab also appears on a combination platter ($5.25), which includes two agreeable vegetable-stuffed fried hors d'oeuvres and well-done pieces of lamb and chicken cooked in the intense heat of a tandoori oven. The two special sauces that accompany the appetizers are a fiery, pungent dip of fresh coriander and hot green peppers, and a tomato-based sauce as sweet as catsup but a little spicier.
On the dinner menu, the entrees are grouped in four categories, with curries being the most numerous, followed by tandoori (clay oven-baked), biryani (spiced rice casseroles), and karahai (Indian wok) dishes. The lunch menu shows some streamlining -- no tandoori dishes and only three breads.
As for the curries, I enjoyed the chicken vindaloo in a yogurt-thickened sauce with a hint of lemon, the savory rogan josh (lamb), and the ginger-spiked goat masala (reminiscent of the resilient texture and flavor of lean beef).
The skewered meats, nicely marinated in yogurt and cooked tandoori-style, tended to be overdone, however.
The chicken karahi was a big success, with a rich, spicy sauce thick with pureed nuts and cream.
The only dish that lacked distinction was the mild vegetable biryani -- more like a pleasant rice pilaf than an elegant casserole.
Any of the three desserts -- the rice pudding, the warm "honey" ball, and the homemade cheese in sweet milk -- would make a delightful finish, topped off with a cup of cardamom tea.