The most intriguing duck in recent memory spent three days hanging out to dry and required diners to wait 40 minutes while it was roasted, bathed with hot oil and finally presented tableside, where the mahogany feast was sliced and served with pickled onions and pancakes so thin you could almost read through them.
Apologies if you’re waiting to hear about a Chinese find. This duck is an off-the-menu attraction at Punjab Grill, a posh downtown restaurant whose owner and chef want to elevate the Indian dining experience and aren’t afraid to mix and match flavors from around the world. To illustrate the point, chef Jaspratap Bindra’s riff on Peking duck swaps in gingery prune sauce for the traditional hoisin, but also rumali, or “handkerchief,” roti for the standard pancakes. Ask ahead if you want in on the limited, labor-intensive, $120 splurge, which easily feeds four as a bridge between starter and main course, and acknowledges the influence of Chinese immigration in Northern India.
Tuna tartare comes as a curiosity, too, and not just because the appetizer has been around long enough for several generations of diners to grow tired of it. In Bindra’s hands, the overworked staple tastes current. The colors alone seduce us: pink cubes of raw fish glistening atop a green cake of creamy avocado and tart Granny Smith apple. A suggestion of India comes by way of ginger powder and masala spice in the seasoning.
Lest anyone think the kitchen is veering too far from its Punjabi inspiration, plenty of the rest of the menu embraces traditional Indian notions, albeit in modern guises. The street food snack gol gappa — crisp little flour shells stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas and spiced water — are upgraded with a filling of potatoes and avocado, hold any messy liquid, and a single berry or fruit gel as garnish on top. The fragile pastries are beautiful, but I miss the sting (if not the splash) that spiced water adds.
Owner Karan Singh, a New Delhi native, former airline pilot and princely presence in the dining room, is clearly aiming for the stars here, commencing with an interior constructed in India and transported to Washington in five 40-foot shipping containers. It’s easy to see where $5 million went: a marble bar inlaid with mother-of-pearl, hand-carved wooden screens to break up the space, fanciful ceilings that draw eyes up and restrooms dressed with more marble and brass accents. Fittingly, gold is the color of choice for many elements, including chairs and water pitchers, and drinks are lavished with the same attention as the food. Yes, that’s a lion’s face, the restaurant’s logo, etched into the block of ice chilling your cocktail.
The most magical room is just off the entrance. I have yet to try the 10-seat oasis, a jewel box walled in thousands of tiny mirrors and distinguished with Hermès dishware, but should I come into an unexpected $3,000 (the price for a custom-made dinner at prime time), I think I could get a guest list together pretty easily. Until then, I’m happy to find myself at a booth with the silhouette of a temple in the main dining room, or the moodier “Passage to India,” which conjures a plush train carriage, its tables fronted with hand-carved marble legs. The jarring note, no matter your table, is a playlist that too often suggests you’re in a Vegas hotspot rather than a D.C. dining statement.
Bindra, who is from Kanpur, knows how to treat vegetables. A head of crumb-covered broccoli gets the fondue treatment with a pool of melted cream cheese, garlic, cloves and green chiles. Spiced, panko-crusted jackfruit dumplings arrive in a velvety, tomato-and-onion sauce that pings from sweet to hot. The golden spheres are garnished with what a server calls butter “powder” — tapioca flour, butter and fenugreek — meant to replace the straight butter many kitchens add. Jackfruit, along with buttermilk curds, also finds its way into dahi kebab, cheese croquettes ratcheted up with red chile powder in their semolina crusts. The kebab comes with sliced grapes to temper the heat. Shaved Brussels sprouts tossed with fresh coconut and curry leaf, and charred eggplant and tomatoes enriched with ghee, are more familiar Indian treatments, but no less welcome. The same can’t be said of the makai palak, a murky little swamp of spinach and corn.
Morels and cremini mushrooms smoked over charcoal and served as a soft pâté give the chef an opportunity to tell the story of the long-ago Nawab of Lucknow. The monarch had lost his teeth but not his appetite for meat, which prompted royal cooks to come up with a kebab so tender, chewing wasn’t an issue. Bindra’s revision (gucchi galouti), spread on lightly sweet biscuits called bakarkhani, is meaty without the help of flesh.
Do you have a tablemate who prefers steakhouses to any other restaurant? That companion should be happy with braised short ribs strewn with pickled red onions and fried potato crisps. The seafood fancier in your posse? Let me point out the tiger prawns, cooked in the tandoor and tingling with lemon, ginger and green chiles. The beauties arrive with lemon foam and tomato jam, each fillip bringing something nice to the party.
Goat biryani captures everyone’s attention when its glass globe is brought out and its pastry seal is cut away, releasing a cloud of steam informed by saffron, fried onions and tender goat, plus the basmati rice in which everything cooks. The lid of the pastry, freckled with fennel and other seeds, is part of the prize and meant to be eaten. Raita stands by, ready to cool things off.
Northern India is revered for its breads, a point the kitchen validates. The best are the pillowy kulcha stuffed with goat cheese and spinach, a hot pocket that’s become a habit, and the flaky paratha swirled with fresh mint or zesty chile. A disk of lemon naan serving as contrast to a little dish of red curry chicken is sweet and sticky with syrup made from lemonade. The bread is good for a bite but quickly goes stiff.
Here and there, fanciful presentation trumps the food on the plate. Encircled in rings of minted cilantro sauce and mounted on spiced potatoes, a $42 fan of lamb chops, the most expensive entree, is chewy and undercooked; a brush with chile oil and liquid clouds of parsnip puree do little to save the meat. (If it’s lamb you crave, the superior choice is the tender, two-fisted shank draped with curried minced lamb.) Jaggery coconut kulcha is overwhelmed by its many accessories, cherries and flowers and ice cream included. Come dessert, the lighter conclusion is saffron rice pudding treated to a ringer for fennel biscotti.
Dapper uniforms whipped up by an Indian designer give servers an air of sophistication, but my hunch is they’d come across just as smart in jeans and aprons. For sure, they have enthusiasm and grace on their side. A sense of salesmanship, too. “Would you like caviar with your tuna tartare?” they might ask. “Shaved truffles with the spiced eggplant and burrata?” they might inquire. (No, thanks, times two.)
As Singh was preparing to open Punjab Grill in April, he told Food & Wine, “We’re not trying to be a fine dining Indian restaurant. We’re trying to be one of the best fine dining restaurants, period.” He and his team are off to a rich, if occasionally wavering, start.
Punjab Grill (Good/Excellent) 427 11th St. NW. 202-813-3004. punjabgrilldc.com . Open: Dinner daily, lunch weekdays, brunch Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $10 to $20, main courses $16 to $42. Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Easy access at the broad entrance, generous space between tables and a wheelchair-friendly restroom in the rear.