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Kismet Modern Indian adds an artful touch to Alexandria

Tangy grilled sweet potato with liquid garnishes at Kismet Modern Indian in Alexandria, Va. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Unrated during the pandemic

Bushels of sweet potatoes have passed my lips in Indian restaurants. Kismet Modern Indian in Alexandria is the first time I thought the vegetable qualified for a frame, it’s so beautiful.

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The tuber is grilled, cubed, seasoned to make your mouth turn somersaults and stacked to form an orange pyramid. So far, so great. Yet chef Ajay Kumar goes a step further, dressing up the rest of the plate with dots of white (yogurt), green (mint chutney) and red (tamarind sauce). No one tells you how to eat the appetizer, but it’s pretty clear you’re supposed to spear a cube of sweet potato, lit with roasted cumin seeds, black salt and Kashmiri chile powder, and run it through the liquid confetti.

First impressions are everything, and Kismet, a spinoff of the posh Karma Modern Indian in Washington, makes some delightful ones.

No one who visited the previous occupant, the fast-casual BurgerFi, will recognize the interior. “Modern” in the new restaurant’s name extends to the physical space. One wall is illuminated with what appear to be flickering candles; roomy pandemic-friendly booths hug the perimeter of the dining room, the center of which finds well-spaced tables under moon-shaped lights. A broad ramp that used to lead burger eaters to a self-service counter now sees patrons headed to a handsome raised bar, its stools angled just so in the same direction, arranged as if by a choreographer.

The pandemic helped owner Sachin Mahajan decide where to put Kismet. A lot of his clientele in the District lived in Virginia, he says, and when covid struck, those customers and their families stayed close to home. Alexandria’s building boomlet means multiple blocks of residential living on either side of Kismet. It doesn’t hurt that Mahajan and Kumar both reside in town.

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Their second restaurant has links to the first in the form of a few dishes, but Kismet was conceived to be a less formal place to partake of lamb kebab, buttery lentils and some of the most vibrant palak paneer in the area. The menu, a quick read, is a sign of the times. Whereas Karma opened four years ago with a kitchen staff of a dozen — and 60 selections — Kismet finds six cooks producing fewer than half as many choices.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in the little collection. Along with the tangy sweet potatoes, you’ll want to sample puffed rice tossed with green chili and date chutney, a jazzy salad presented in a little gold cornet.

The chef’s focus on presentation comes naturally. “I’m an artist,” says Kumar, who spends his free time at home, along with family members, painting landscapes, abstracts and words of kindness on rocks. Advice from a culinary instructor in his native India explains his plating, too: “First you eat with your eyes, then your nose, then your mouth,” Kumar recalls being taught. The lesson lives on at Kismet, where even such a basic as lamb chops is propped up with golden diced potatoes flavored with fried carom seeds, their aroma akin to thyme, plus ginger and chile.

Eager to highlight the restaurant’s proximity to the waterfront in Old Town, Mahajan wants to add more seafood choices. Right now, there are just two, both delicious. Shrimp cooked in the tandoor encircle a hillock of raw mango and diced bell peppers, a “salsa” fired up with chile powder and cumin. Introduced as a special at Karma, grilled snapper peri-peri is a featured player down the Potomac. The entree’s rough red paste, sprung from Kashmiri chiles and tamarind, brings to mind molten lava. Yet the heat is tempered with baking spices (clove, cinnamon) and caramelized onions. Happily, the layered flavors allow you to still identify the naturally sweet fish.

Kumar, a son of New Delhi, uses a family recipe for his homestyle chicken curry, and all I can think as I shovel the dish from bowl to mouth is how much I want to meet his mother and thank her. Chicken fired up with garlic, ginger, onions and garam masala is chicken I will continue to pursue.

If the food here tastes notches better than at some of the competition, it’s explained by whole spices that are ground in-house and the use of ingredients such as fresh coconut rather than bagged, and tender baby spinach rather than frozen. Considering main courses average $24, the chef’s impulses are commendable.

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The breads! Kismet offers top-notch naan, made to order in one of the restaurant’s two clay ovens. A full-time minder is devoted to the task, which starts with dough made early each morning that gets baked in small batches, to avoid undercooking. Scallions, micro-cilantro and mustard oil decorate the “garden” naan, a pleasing companion to the saucier items.

A few dishes taste like trespassers. Let me winnow your choices by saying the lamb kebab is more straight heat than anything else, and the paneer shaslik is an ordinary skewer of cheese and bell peppers.

I can never resist carrot halwa in an Indian restaurant. Shredded carrots cooked to near-mush with milk and perfumed with cardamom deliver a singular pudding, and I appreciate that Kismet serves the dessert warm. Kumar also offers a satisfying pistachio kulfi and chewy, snow-white coconut “medallions” reminiscent of macaroons. The glint on the sweet is edible silver leaf.

Kismet Modern Indian delivers art on the plate in an original room at a price that’s apt to turn visitors into regulars. Mahajan says he would like to open more such restaurants. Let’s hope that’s our fate.

Note to readers: Beginning with this review, the Dining column will include information regarding restaurants’ pandemic-specific safety protocols.

Kismet Modern Indian, 111 N. Pitt St., Alexandria, Va. 703-567-4507. Open: Inside dining for lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Takeout and delivery available. Prices: Dinner appetizers $10 to $15, main courses $22 to $34. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: A ramp leads to the entrance; a second ramp inside is used to reach ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Front-of-the-house staff wear masks, which are worn on a volunteer basis in the kitchen. The owner says his entire team has verbally confirmed that they’re fully vaccinated, although he has not seen documentation. Kismet has a 30-seat patio in the rear, but the owner says he’ll probably wait for spring to serve people outside.

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