Anil Sustarwar remembers when Bethesda and spicy Indian cooking were two parallel lines, never to intersect. More than a decade ago, the chef behind Bethesda Curry Kitchen was working at Bombay Dining, the precursor to Passage to India, and watching as the locals cried uncle at anything hotter than a plate of butter chicken.
Times have not just changed, they’ve made a surreal, Cantor-esque U-turn. At his new place on Cordell Avenue, Sustarwar receives a fair number of orders via his Web site, where customers now ask for dishes “extra, extra, extra hot.” The man from Hyderabad, India, where they take heat seriously, sometimes won’t honor their requests: He says a supernova of pepper heat will only detract from the other flavors buried in his curries.
As I’m digging into a copper bowl of his baghare baingan, I can understand Sustarwar’s reluctance to upset the natural balance of this baby eggplant dish. A superb expression of Hyderabadi cooking, baghare baingan speaks in a foreign tongue: Its gravy is not tomato or onion-based, like so many subcontinental sauces. Instead, the sauce draws its flavor from sesame seeds, shredded coconut and peanuts, which also lend the gravy a velvety, almost spreadable texture. Underneath the nuttiness, Sustarwar hides a kingdom of spice: cumin, fenugreek, curry leaf and enough whole chilies to light a decent fire under the dish.
The baghare baingan, I’d suggest, is a slow-cook masterpiece, and I’d no more ask Sustarwar to alter it than I’d ask the Museum of Modern Art to take down “The Starry Night” and have an intern add more brushstrokes to the sky just because I love the swirls of color.
If you’ve lived in Bethesda long enough, you’ve probably sampled Sustarwar’s cooking. His career has taken him from Bombay Dining to Passage to India to Saveur India to his current outpost, all in the Maryland suburb. He opened Bethesda Curry Kitchen in March after deciding last year to close his debut restaurant, Saveur India, when the landlords demanded more rent. The transition may have been painful for all parties, particularly the chef’s faithful diners, but in many ways, the wait was worth it. Bethesda Curry Kitchen is the superior operation.
Carved out of a former pizza-and-kebab house, Bethesda Curry Kitchen doesn’t offer much for the eyes. Its main wall, the color of yellow lentils, is adorned with framed photos, each scaled too small for the long expanse. What the place does offer, in abundance, are dishes, many more than Sustarwar ever served at Saveur. His menu spans the breadth of Indian cooking, north to south, east to west, much of it found on the daily lunch buffet.
The pride of Sustarwar’s kitchen are his Hyderabadi dishes, based in a tradition known as Deccan cuisine, which synthesizes Mughal, Persian, indigenous south-central Indian and other influences into something singular. Your search for these flavors should start with the biryani section on Sustarwar’s menu, though the chef will offer a suggestion first: Give him a 24-hour warning if you want your biryani prepared in the true Deccan style. I believe him, but I also believe my palate. Even his lamb biryani, ordered without advance notice, was a fragrant, clove-and-cinnamon-scented dish with meat so tender it broke apart with only the slightest pressure of a fork.
The dum ka chicken, another Deccan specialty, derives its pleasures from a silken gravy built from cashews, almonds and shredded coconut. The sauce, perhaps thinner than the one I remember at Saveur, leans sweet and nutty, partly due to its toasted shahi jeera seeds. And yet: The more dum ka chicken you devour, the more you realize there’s a slow-moving brushfire inching its way across your tongue.
With his larger kitchen, Sustarwar has expanded his menu into South India, with iddly rice cakes and a variety of dosas. The chef’s “spring vegetables” dosa looks as fat as a Chipotle burrito; it’s a lentil crepe stuffed with turmeric-tinted potatoes, dried pepper husks, carrots and fresh green peas, the last ingredient the lone ode to spring. The onion-and-chili oothappam, another lentil-based pancake, delivers better on its promise, a one-two punch of heat and sulfur aromas that fight for attention with the crepe’s sour, fermented flavors. It’s a battle in which everyone wins.
Sustarwar’s menu is now so vast I fear it must be difficult to maintain on a day-to-day basis. But the kitchen never flinched, no matter what I ordered, whether soup (the thukpa is a bold, but lightly seasoned Himalayan specialty that could be sold as East Indian chicken noodle soup) or tandoori lamb chops (rather chewy specimens that lack char but boast a bracing amount of salt). Among my favorites are a pair of chicken dishes on opposite ends of the heat spectrum: a tart butter chicken that whispers sweetly and a piney coorgi chicken that turns your mouth into a walking tandoor (in search of a cool pond to dive into).
For such an expansive number of dishes, in fact, the disappointments are few. The chana masala in onion-tomato gravy is standard-issue stuff; the pani puri, small hollows of fried dough stuffed with chickpeas and potato, never pop with flavor, even with an application of tamarind chutney; and the grainy gulab jamun smacks mostly of syrup and rose water.
But whether they serve up masterpiece or disappointment, Sustarwar and his wife, Radhika, are gracious tour guides as they explain the nuances of Deccan cuisine — or how this suburb has gradually trained its palate to savor the spicy dexterity of Indian cooking and become the ideal incubator for a place like Bethesda Curry Kitchen.
4860 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-0062. www.bethesdacurrykitchen.com.
Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, and 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner.
Nearest Metro: Bethesda, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $8.99-$20.99.