Want to light up your dining room table? Order some avial, batons of steamed banana, carrots and the Indian vegetable called drumsticks in a golden cloak of shredded coconut, curry leaves and yogurt. The same is true of dense but delicious morsels of lamb rolled in a grass-colored paste of raw green papaya, ginger, mint and red chiles. The takeout boxes aren’t labeled. But to lift the lid from one is to tag the mushrooms you ordered. Tossed with onions and bell peppers as well as ginger and garlic cooked in chile paste, the mushrooms are sweetened with ketchup — “not Heinz,” says the chef, but the Maggi brand, popular in India — which explains their ruby gloss.
Rajoo, who climbed the kitchen ladder in India, cooked for an Italian cruise company and acquired hospitality degrees at Baltimore International College, comes to Gaithersburg via New Jersey, where he headed a hotel restaurant in Somerset. (The owner’s in-laws, and their promise to help Rajoo if he moved closer to them, lured him to Maryland.) Two of his fellow cooks are from India. The others are from Brazil and Guatemala.
The menu is a mix of Indian food as prevalent as hand sanitizer and dishes you don’t find everywhere. Sharing bandwidth are big triangular samosas, butter chicken and syrup-soaked gulab jamun — good renditions all — as well as nubby fritters shaped with banana florets and split chickpeas, dry-cooked lamb chukka and the dessert called palkova. Milk slow-cooked with sugar in a banana leaf is a staple of south Indian festivals. Rajoo’s version is blond and comforting, with a pleasantly grainy texture.
Soup makes a stellar starter. The one I lap most is the seemingly straightforward tomato and coriander “bisque,” a dark red liquid flecked with signs of more than mere tomato and coriander. Sure enough, Rajoo starts the soup by cooking curry leaves, Thai chiles, black pepper, onions and cardamom in coconut oil. The result, softly crunchy with onions and equal parts pleasure and pain, washes over the tongue like liquid fire. I’m always sorry when I hit the bottom of the carton.
The restaurant’s name incorporates an ordering tip. Chennai refers to the capital of Tamil Nadu, the southern state that Rajoo, 44, calls home; hoppers is the Anglicized word for appam, the pancake based on fermented rice batter and fresh coconut. Chennai Hoppers serves the dish, distinguished by its soft center and edges like a doily, with a mild curry, cardamom-flavored milk and the option of an egg on top.
It would be easy to fill up just on pancakes, gathered under the “tiffin ready” heading. (Tiffin is a reference to India’s midday snack time.) The dosas are excellent. How best to pack the giant griddled scrolls? Rajoo folds them, wraps them in both wax paper and foil, then tucks them inside pizza boxes. At home, recipients unroll the dosas and add their filling of choice. Uthappam, thicker and springier than a dosa, is offered with a variety of toppings; shredded carrots are a nice contrast to the tangy canvas. Dosas and uthappams become meals in the company of chutney (I gravitate to coconut) and hearty sambar.
Hyderabad, in south-central India, is the home of biryani, the revered rice dish introduced to the country by Persia in the 16th century. As prepared in India, biryani is rich with ghee and best followed by a nap. Rajoo offers a lighter but no less luscious version of the classic, the first dish he says he tackles when he arrives at the restaurant at 8:30 a.m. Into the same big pot go parboiled basmati rice, possibly chicken or goat, and vegetables that have been sauteed with whole spices, including cardamom. The rice that comes to your door is faint red, from chile powder, and deeply flavorful, thanks to a garlic-ginger paste. As in his homeland, he sells bucket biryani, an economical way for four to eat, since the buckets (choose from vegetable, chicken or goat biryani) come with a snack, soda, cooling raita and dessert and cost $35, $48 and $55, respectively.
Chennai Hoppers takes heat requests seriously. My lassi-stained notes for avial ordered hot included an underlined “spicy” and an exclamation point. Thai green chiles will do that to a dish. I admire the fires I’ve encountered; Rajoo adjusts the heat with a combination of roasted black peppercorns and dried red chiles. Going in, however, even hot heads might consider asking for a “medium” spice level.
One of the few items Rajoo doesn’t like to serve mild is chukka, a dish from his native city of Madurai: diced lamb cooked over a low flame until its dark sauce, seasoned with roasted cardamom, cinnamon and clove, sticks to the meat like paste. The fragrant and spicy dish simply wouldn’t be what it’s meant to be without its punches, says the chef, who boosts the flavor of the chukka with the lichen called kalpasi.
Really, my only issue with Chennai Hoppers is a menu so long and varied that even after four orders and a taste of more than 15 dishes — some requested twice to check for consistency — I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of the kitchen’s handiwork. The list teases — so many tough decisions! — but it also delivers the goods.
Fact: The dining room is expected to open by the middle of June. Maybe I’ll wrangle my 20 hungriest friends to see if they can join me. Because I know I’m missing something wonderful. Goat trotters, get ready for us.
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Chennai Hoppers 136 Paramount Park Dr., Gaithersburg, Md. 240-813-0061. chennaihoppers.com. Open for delivery and takeout 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. (The dining room is expected to reopen in mid-June.) Prices: Appetizers $6 to $13, main courses $12 to $19. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA-compliant.