The area’s latest crop of Indian restaurants must have all received the same dress-for-success memo. A scan of the horizon finds starburst lighting and acres of plush fabric at the aptly named Bombay Velvet in Reston and mother-of-pearl inlays and Hermès dishware at the even posher Punjab Grill in downtown Washington.
Now along comes Commonwealth Indian, raising the design bar in Rockville with its 100-seat bar and dining room in the Pike & Rose development. I’ve seen no other restaurant that looks like it. Two-dimensional Bengal tigers, cut from metal, cavort on the walls, and the illusion of a peacock in a garden is created from a bunch of colorful faux flowers and plants. Globe-shaped lights shimmer beneath an ornate, gold-painted ceiling. The look sets a tone, raises diners’ expectations and suggests the owner cares as much about comfort as he does about cooking.
“Don’t go just to fill your stomach,” says executive chef and owner Sunil Bastola, who also owns Bollywood Bistro, a casual mini-chain with branches in Great Falls and Fairfax. Originally from a part of Nepal that borders India, Bastola learned to cook from his mother and grandmother. He aspired to be a pilot (just like the owner of Punjab Grill, who became one) but ended up relocating to Northern Virginia and studying culinary arts at Stratford University.
Commonwealth Indian focuses mostly on the food of the north, sometimes with a twist, almost always with a flourish. That Indian workhorse, lamb kebab, is presented with a semicircular hedge of chopped tomato, cucumber and onion, a sparkling contrast to the soft rope of lamb shot through with ginger and coriander. Paneer bonda, fried balls of the crumbled cheese in a veneer of spiced gram flour, are served on sticks like savory pops and embedded in a thick red pepper-onion sauce.
Not all the “preludes,” as the menu calls appetizers, are successes. Pizzan — naan deployed as a support for arugula, mozzarella and spiced onion gravy — goes down like a California Pizza Kitchen also-ran. And it’s a challenge to eat half a roasted squab when it’s placed in the middle of a bowl of pureed lentil soup. Let it be? Take it out to slice it?
Sampling the innovations here almost always makes me wish for something more traditional, like the yogurt-marinated, mint- and fire-kissed chicken drumsticks. I have a soft spot for the samosa chips, however: potatoes and carom (a.k.a. ajwain) seeds mixed in a dough, shaped into four rounds and fried to a shade of gold. “Chips” is being modest. Each one of the rich snacks, basically the shell of a samosa, is the size of a saucer. One is good, two can spoil your appetite.
Entrees merit some stomach space. Lamb is lovely, the chops most of all. Rubbed with yogurt and spices, they’re seared on the grill and finished in a thick, pleasantly sweet korma sauce coaxed from onion, tomato and almond flour. Hello, Delhi! Chunks of braised lamb in a moat of creamy spinach are the kind of rib-sticker best consumed by a lumberjack, or in another season. In summer, the dish plays a heavy.
South India is represented, and well, by Chettinad murgh, chicken cloaked in yogurt, chile paste and black pepper and cooked over a low fire with onions and tomatoes. What should sting — vindaloo, for instance — does, although the heat tends to be revealed in little waves rather than bugle blasts. See: sauteed shrimp in a tamarind-tart sauce of coconut milk, and subtly smoky with Kashmiri chiles.
Bastola says the crowd favorite is his yellow crab curry. “I’m surprised,” says the chef. “It’s $25,” the second-most expensive dish on his menu. The fandom is understandable. Jumbo lump crab takes well to being simmered in coconut milk, bright with turmeric and racy with red chile. The $29 sea bass moistened with a sauce including yellow mustard seeds is also very good, if not the same eye candy.
Whatever your order, the meal comes with an entourage of irresistible quarter-size papadums, mango chutney and raita, the latter a useful fire extinguisher.
If only the kitchen could lighten up on the sugar. The butter chicken here tastes like the last course of a meal, not the savory middle. The breads could use more finesse, too. Whole-wheat paratha spread with sweetened milk solids looks and tastes like a Cinnabon after an encounter with a steamroller.
Commonwealth Indian’s weekend brunch buffet is just under $20 per person, and it comes with (bottomless) mango lassi. You won’t find the crab curry, but that still leaves a lot to explore and to like: soft eggplant in a warm-spiced gravy, morsels of lamb in teasing red curry, bite-size fritters of chickpeas and corn. At one point, a server dropped off a plate of tandoori chicken drumsticks. He had seen me looking at an empty pan on the buffet and wanted me to know it had been refilled. If only all buffet attendants were as attentive. Dessert embraces fresh-cut fruit, fun-size cups of blueberry yogurt flavored with cardamom and a loose almond pudding, sweet with jaggery, that gets the attention of the Indians around me. (If you ever find yourself where you don’t know the food, take cues from the tables of people who look like they might have grown up with the cuisine.)
Commonwealth Indian could easily rest on its good looks and effusive service, which makes you feel glad to be there from the moment you step inside. Behind the glam, however, is a chef who encourages you to come back for his pleasing takes on Indian tradition.
Commonwealth Indian (Good) 11610 Old Georgetown Rd., Rockville. 240-833-3055. commonwealthindian.com.
Open: Daily for lunch or brunch and dinner. Prices: Lunch appetizers $9 to $12, entrees $12 to $19; dinner appetizers $8 to $15, entrees $19 to $29. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No steps. Two broad doors lead to the foyer. Restrooms are equipped with roomy stalls and grab bars.