The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
Task a four-star chef to make the street food of his homeland, and here’s what he hawks: savory pancakes topped with shrimp and mint chutney; lamb kebabs stuffed into warm flatbread; and fish ignited with chili paste and cooked in a banana leaf. Vikram Sunderam, recipient of a prestigious James Beard Award for his work at Rasika, is on another roll, this time with a collection of small plates. They roam workaday India for inspiration and fulfill the promise of the eatery’s name in Hindi slang: cool. Carved from the lounge half of Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park, the dining room, set off with spice jars and orange seats, is too small to fit all its fans. Be prepared to wait, then, but also to be delighted.
2 1/2 stars
Bindaas: 3309 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-244-6550. bindaasdc.com .
Prices: Mains $10-$25.
Sound check: 84 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following review was originally published Sept. 21, 2016.
Bindaas review: A hot spot for Indian snacks, from the team behind Rasika
We’re squeezed into Bindaas, the latest offering from prolific restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, and mapping out possibilities on the menu. Every food lover in town seems to have made his or her way to the 53-seat space carved from the former Bardeo in Cleveland Park. (Ardeo, its sibling next door, remains open.) Indian street snacks from a James Beard Award winner, Rasika chef Vikram Sunderam, have a way of filling a room.
For a while now, chowhounds have used their meals at certain restaurants — Pineapple and Pearls from the moment it opened, Bad Saint following its bear hug from Bon Appetit — to puff up their chests. New to the conversation is the question, “Have you been to Bindaas?”
An answer in the affirmative typically leads to a discussion of specific gems. My pals of Indian heritage are inevitably charmed by the golgappa, sheer puffed biscuits the size of quarters, with holes in the top that hint of their fillings. A traditional well might include tangy water, chickpeas and mint, which can make for messy eating if you don’t treat the liquid salad like a single shot. Sunderam gets around the problem by using creamy but solid avocado, along with sweetened yogurt and date-tamarind chutney, in his golgappa, one of several featured chaat (savory snacks). Companions who grew up on Indian cooking also tend to talk up the pao bhaji. A staple on the streets of the chef’s native Mumbai, it combines a glossy sliced roll that’s been toasted on the griddle and a bowl of mashed vegetables infused with warm Indian spices — basically, “an Indian sloppy joe,” one connoisseur put it, helping herself to seconds. To complete the picture, she adds a spoonful of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and onion to the saucy bun.
Uttapam gets lips moving, too. Imagine a thick, slightly tangy pancake made with fermented rice and split peas. Bindaas serves the disk with a choice of covers, the finest of which is springy spiced shrimp. A dollop of green coconut-cilantro chutney makes a cool addition. Sunderam’s kathi rolls, based on flaky roti, have me reconsidering my distaste for wraps. Chunks of lamb, seasoned with black pepper and sweet onions, then rolled inside roti lacy with egg, make for a little bundle of joy. Think of the construction as a burrito via Kolkata (Calcutta), among the places where it’s popular abroad.
Another go-to snack is shishito pepper pakora, which I relish as much for the delicate crunch of the fried (chickpea flour) batter as for the inevitable game of Russian roulette involved with shishito peppers: Will they be hot or not? A stuffing of potatoes and flattened rice (pohe) fills each potential zinger, best dunked in the vivid red onion chutney served to the side. Vegetarians are also seduced with roasted sweet potatoes draped in yogurt and date chutney, and a house salad that shows off the tropics with ripe jackfruit, mango, papaya and the latest in crunch: fried chickpeas, if you haven’t noticed. The dishes show up as they’re ready, as at a lot of restaurants, although never at a pace that feels as if your whole order just landed at once.
The menu is a single page, fewer than two dozen dishes, none of them replicas of what you see at the owner’s fancier Indian draws: Bombay Club downtown, the original Rasika in Penn Quarter and Rasika West End. Masala popcorn is movie popcorn fragrant and fiery with all sorts of C’s — curry leaf, coriander, chilies — and I can’t help but think Bajaj would be wise to sell the idea to Bollywood.
Sunderam slathers market fish — sometimes striped bass, other days branzino — with chili paste, then bundles it in a banana leaf before it hits the grill. Diners unfurl the green wrap at the table to discover the affinity fish has for fire, which is tamed (a touch) by a sidekick of cubed roasted potatoes flecked with mustard seeds.
There are only two dishes that don’t grab this India-phile. One is bhel puri, but only because there are more interesting versions of the crisp salad elsewhere (Masala Art, for one). The other bummer is lamb shashlik arranged on a stripe of saffron rice. My fork picked up cubes of meat that were dense and dry.
The design glamorizes street hawkers and roadside fare (but couldn’t care less about your ears). Big jars of spices — cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, curry leaves, everything reflective of an Indian pantry — line the shelves, while the walls reveal art, like the image of a Vespa and a street peddler, similar to what you’d see splashed on trucks or shop fronts in India. Illumination comes by way of upside-down baskets of the sort markets would use to display food. Orange seats burnish the scene, which ends with an oven that no longer issues pizza, but naan. A see-through wall separates Bindaas from Ardeo, which comes to the rescue of the smaller restaurant on occasion, as when a diner asks for a rosé that only Ardeo carries or a group of Indian-food fans require more elbow room. (Ardeo can host them in an upstairs dining room.) While I’m generally not a fan of TVs in restaurants, at least the one above the bar of the newcomer is set on Bollywood films.
Street food this riveting calls for a festive conclusion. Kulfi, chewy Indian ice cream, delivers. Bindaas serves the frozen treat as a skewered spiral, bedded on saffron-poached noodles and streaked with pink rose syrup. Eating the confection, freckled with tiny black basil seeds, might have you thinking “bindaas.” That’s Hindi slang, more or less, for “cool.”
Bajaj says he introduced Bindaas partly to revive Cleveland Park, which became less of a dining destination following the departure of Palena two years ago and the explosion of good restaurants elsewhere, notably Shaw. Coincidentally, the taste-maker unveiled his latest flavor just as a neighbor, Indique, refreshed its dining room and added Indian street food to its repertoire, too. Competition is good, though, particularly when it involves some of the world’s best grazing. As far as I’m concerned, the more chaat, the merrier.