Four years ago at a gym in Tysons, Vipul Kapila, the owner of an IT consulting firm in Rockville, met Sanjay Mandhaiya, then the chef and co-owner of Saffron in Falls Church. Kapila visited the Indian restaurant to taste Mandhaiya’s vindaloo, during which the diner mentally high-fived the presenter.
“He didn’t dumb down the spices,” says Kapila of the curry known for its vinegar sting and spice blast. New Delhi natives, the men subsequently bonded, musing about opening a restaurant together. They turned fantasy into reality in June with the debut of their 87-seat Pappe near Thomas Circle in the District.
Their hometown comes alive in the dining room (formerly Popeyes), where fabric collected from the markets of New Delhi create overhead sails and metal trays from the 1960s feature the faces of beloved Bollywood stars. “I love the explosion of colors” back home, says Kapila, who hired designer Melissa Funkey to bring some of the chaos of India to Washington. The rear booths, framed in flame-colored curtains, are for pencil shapes; they’re tight. In pleasant weather, with the windows open to the sidewalk, there’s no finer perch than the pillow-strewn banquette up front.
If you dropped by in the restaurant’s infancy, when the service was as green as mint chutney and the flabby naan tasted alien to any bread I’ve had on its home turf, I encourage you to give Pappe another chance. With each visit, I find the staff to be more confident, the cooking to be more sure.
A favorite entree, Chilean sea bass in a moat of curry enriched with coconut milk and curry leaves, trumps the ordinary tandoor-cooked salmon. Vegetarians have 10 main courses to choose from, including kaju muttar paneer: peas, fennel, cashews and cubes of fresh cheese, silky as tofu, in a golden cloak of sauce that resonates with warm spices.
About the vindaloo, which can be ordered with a choice of chicken, shrimp, cod or lamb: Mandhaiya says he learned to make it at a roadside shack in Goa. Whole spices, including cardamom and red chiles, are soaked overnight in vinegar, after which they are ground to a paste and cooked in vegetable oil over a slow fire. Think of his tender lamb vindaloo as the taste equivalent of a trumpet call.
Mandhaiya shares cooking duty with chef Shankar Puthran, who co-owned Saffron until the business was sold to purchase space for Pappe, the Punjabi word for “brother.” It’s a fitting name for a restaurant that feels as though family is behind it.
1317 14th St. NW. 202-888-8220. pappedc.com. Entrees, $11 to $32.