The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Spring Dining Guide.
Karma Modern Indian
Butter chicken you can get at just about any Indian restaurant. Roast baby goat mixed with turnip greens and baby spinach is another matter. “My favorite dish,” a solicitous server tells me when I ask him about what becomes my entree of choice after I taste the Kashmiri signature, lush with garam masala. The city has been enjoying an uptick in Indian dining experiences of late, and this establishment, from a couple of first-time restaurateurs and chef Ajay Kumar, a New Delhi native, is among the most ambitious. Kumar’s ropy, rose-flavored lamb kebabs are satisfying on their own, and better (hotter) after a swab of sauce ignited with Thai green chiles. Lobster masala is beautiful and luscious, with the crustacean and its sweet meat ringed in crimson diced beets seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves and more. (Yes, you’ll want some garlic naan to mop up the sauces.) You don’t have to be a meat head to enjoy the menu, whose draws include soft steamed rice cakes presented with vivid tomato and coconut chutneys. The dining room is as contemporary as the cooking, evinced by an open kitchen set off with blue tiles and a curved banquette that looks onto Kumar’s stage. India is my favorite journey; Karma reminds me why.
2 1/2 stars
Karma Modern Indian: 611 I St. NW. 202-898-0393. karmamodernindian.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.
Prices: Lunch mains $15 to $25, dinner mains $19 to $40.
Sound check: 73 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Jan. 1, 2018.
Karma Modern Indian’s uplifting dining experience could use more altitude
Honestly, the starchy lolli is more fun to view than to taste, and the same is true for the lamb, cooked longer than requested when I sampled it, although the chops’ supporting players proved delicious. A patty of minced goat meat ramped up with cumin, cilantro, green chiles and more is enticing, but slices of pink-rimmed dragon fruit make a curious canvas for the kebab.
Washington is enjoying a little Indian moment. Check it out. November saw the arrival of an offshoot of a familiar brand, Bindaas in Foggy Bottom, a spirited source for Indian street food. December brought the fast-casual Rasa in the Navy Yard, where build-your-own bowls are the drill. And just before Christmas appeared Karma Modern Indian near Chinatown. For a fanboy like me, the openings were a delightful development. There can never be too much tandoor-cooked food, too many curry leaves, cardamom or kulfi.
The most upscale of the arrivals is Karma, the handiwork of first-time restaurateurs Sachin Mahajan and Ricky Singh, and chef Ajay Kumar, 43. To enter the dining room on any given night is to discover a stage set of an open kitchen, bordered in blue tiles, and curved seating from which to take in the cooking show. Is that Annie Lennox singing in the background? The music suggests Karma wants the club kids to feel at home.
Kumar, a New Delhi native whose résumé includes time at IndAroma restaurant in Alexandria, puts a lot of effort into presentation. Behold, the chicken lolli, minced breaded chicken clinging to sugar cane sticks! Springing from glass globes, the golden spears, affixed to their jars with tamarind sauce, look like corn dogs after a day of beauty. Lentils in shades of gold and brown are shaped into a neat cake and displayed on a cool, green carpet of cucumber strips. Tandoori lamb chops get propped upright on their plate and are nearly upstaged by concentric rings of tomato-onion gravy and a square of cumin-sparked potatoes garnished with flowers.
Of the more traditional fare, I’m drawn to snowy halibut in a lava-colored, vinegar-sharpened sauce made with coconut milk and caramelized onion. But chili prawns gathered on a banana leaf taste one-note (simply hot) and the breads leave the clay oven limp and routine. Service in these early weeks is overeager, if well-intentioned. If the table visits dropped by half, I’d be grateful.
Which is not to say dessert is an afterthought. Both the super-moist coconut cake with raspberry puree and the pistachio kulfi (ice cream) with beads of orange “caviar” and a platemate of gingerbread squareswill make diners glad they stuck around for something sweet.