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.
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 chilies and more is enticing, but slices of pink-rimmed dragon fruit make a curious canvas for the kebab.
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.
Why the name? “You eat good food and it lifts your morale,” says Mahajan, whose background is in banking but whose family in India owns several restaurants. Indeed, the multiple salads on the menu, including the lovely lentil mix, reflect Karma’s desire to show Indian food in a healthy light. Vegetables are well-represented throughout the list. Cauliflower marinated in yogurt and warm spices, and cooked in the tandoor, benefits from a base of strained tomato sauce flavored with roasted red peppers, the kick of which lingers on the tongue.
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 squares will make diners glad they stuck around for something sweet.
611 I St. NW; 202-898-0393. karmamodernindian.com. Entrees, $19 to $43.