It might be hard to find a positive in a pandemic. But one of the silver linings is a raised awareness of the connection among the food supply, the environment and general health, says Ran Nussbacher, co-founder of the plant-based Shouk in Washington, known for a two-fisted whopper of a burger to rival any in the city.

Diners looking to restaurants for self-care would be wise to find time for takeout from the following trio, all of which promise a garden of good eating.

Good thing Amber Spice in Laurel has two chefs. When one of them, Saravan “Sam” Krishnan, couldn’t make it home from a trip to his native south India in March, his brother, Venkatesan, or “John,” devoted himself to the kitchen full time. It further helps that the two got their start together, as waiters at the vegetarian Udupi Palace in Takoma Park, and previously cooked side by side at the departed Curry Leaf, also in Laurel.

Their time at Udupi Palace taught them you could fill a place without the aid of meat. Much as I like the Goan shrimp curry and sizzling lamb kebabs at Amber Spice, I’m perfectly content feasting solely on vegetables.

Arranging the takeout for a group portrait on my kitchen counter not long ago, I was struck by the beauty of the spread. The forest-green spinach kofta next to the dusky gold aloo gobi alongside the shocking red paneer chili begged for a frame. Better still, the vibrant buffet delivered on the palate. Finely chopped carrots, peas, potatoes and beans lend their charms to the kofta, balls cloaked in a spinach-cream puree. Cauliflower, potatoes and onions are gently steamed so that the aloo gobi, colored with turmeric, holds its shape and texture. The cubed paneer and sauteed bell peppers, an Indo-Chinese dish, come with a one-two punch from vinegar and roasted chiles.

You may think you don’t like okra. But naysayers become converts when they taste okra as it’s coddled here: cubed, seasoned with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and half a dozen other jazz notes, and fried to a tender crunch. “Like we cook in our house,” says Venkatesan Krishnan of his light touch with oil.

Then there’s egg curry, saucy with coconut milk, tomatoes and onions and served with flaky paratha. The bread gets more delicious as it soaks up the broth, lit with ginger, chile powder and curry leaves and as close as I see myself getting to Kerala for the foreseeable future.

Krishnan says the brothers, who co-own Amber Spice with longtime friend Moses Krishnarajan, decided against naming their restaurant after a person or a village. They opted to sum up the place with a well-used ingredient. Manjal might have confused someone who wasn’t south Indian. Turmeric, its English translation, was already taken. Amber, the trio ultimately concluded, was a color diners would catch in most every bite of their radiant food.
13524 Baltimore Ave., Laurel, Md. 301-477-4828. Open for takeout 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Delivery via DoorDash and Uber Eats. Entrees, $13 to $24.

Since the pandemic disrupted their business model, the owners at Aracosia in McLean have discovered that, much like for UPS, people love their packages. As in family dinners, a three-course menu including a bottle of wine, and vegetarian/vegan samplers. “You get to taste a bunch of things,” says Omar Masroor of the Afghan restaurant’s sampler packs. Hopefully, he says, customers “maybe come back, into the dining room” for a favorite dish.

I’m smitten with the vegetarian deal: a choice of appetizer, entree, side dish and dessert for $24 a person. While the online menu calls for a four-person minimum, that’s a request rather than a demand; without revealing my identity, I was able to order the deal for two. And had I been able to pick up the meal before 4 p.m., the cost would have been $5 less. That includes the aushak: floppy dumplings green with leeks and scallions inside and decked out with a blanket of carrots and peas, a drizzle of garlic yogurt and dustings of cayenne and dried mint. It’s my preferred starter, although the crisp turnovers with diced portobellos come close.

As for main courses, a bevy of greens — spinach, collards and kale simply seasoned with fenugreek and turmeric — go into the rib-sticking sabzi lawaan, spooned over fragrant basmati rice. And seemingly a bushel of beans — chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans — top a carton of dumplings sweetened with pumpkin. (Ask for kadu tosh peyra.) When I request a side of eggplant, the voice on the other end of the line responds with a verbal high five. My tongue has the same reaction when the vegetable, soft from roasting and set in a light tomato stew, passes my lips.

Flavor is achieved without a speck of butter. “No cream, no milk, no cheese,” either, says Masroor, whose business partner is his wife, chef Sofia. Yogurt, on the other hand, is as everywhere as athleisure. “I don’t think we can live without yogurt,” the restaurateur says of his compatriots. As in the dining room, the accompanying flatbread comes with four dips. I’m partial to the sting of vinegar and herbs in one, the cool of avocado and yogurt in another. Firni, a custard infused with cardamom and garnished with pistachios, is Afghan bliss, kissed with rose water.

News flash: The owners are conducting an experiment in Washington at their Afghan restaurant in the Palisades. They are in the process of turning their back dining room into Aracosia Market, a mini-bazaar showcasing spices, sweets, tea and more from Central Asia, North Africa, India and elsewhere. Look for the door to open in (knock on wood) September.

1381 Beverly Rd., McLean, Va. 703-269-3820. Open for takeout noon to 9 p.m. daily. Delivery via Door Dash, GrubHub, Seamless, Uber Eats and the restaurant (free within a three-mile radius with a minimum order of $50). A la carte entrees, $14.50 to $42.

The signature draw at Shouk may be the most labor-intensive burger in the city.

“Every single ingredient is prepared separately,” says Dennis Friedman, chef and co-founder of the Middle Eastern fast-casual restaurant. No fewer than 15 vegetables and legumes — cauliflower, black beans, beets, mushrooms, etc. — go into the Shouk burger, which is held together with pureed flaxseed and slipped into tender whole-wheat pita the size of an oven mitt. Far from being a kitchen sink, the mouthful would be less without the support of each element. And the accessories are as considered as the centerpiece. Charred onions add welcome smokiness. Pickled turnips lend tang. A downy layer of peppery arugula gives the sandwich height and hue. The construction is thoughtful, beautiful and as rewarding as any of the beefy alternatives around town.

I’m not surprised when Friedman tells me the K Street original sometimes sells more than 200 Shouk burgers a day. Or that the vast majority of the eatery’s customers aren’t vegetarian. Good taste is the driving force behind the plant-based menu. The kitchen also makes an eggplant burger, based on the Israeli dish sabich, and I like it almost as much as the bestseller. Like the Shouk burger, the sliced eggplant is soft in parts, crusty in others. Unlike the burger, the fried eggplant comes with bun mates of magenta cabbage and sheer potato slices.

As detailed as the Shouk burger sounds, Friedman says he put more time into his chickpea fritters. “Everybody knows falafel,” says the chef, who launched the kosher business four years ago with Ran Nussbacher, a native of Israel with a background in technology. The brown spheres are green with parsley and cilantro in their centers, fluffy thanks to sparkling water in the mix. My preferred way to enjoy the wonderful falafel is atop a bowl of hummus, whipped up fresh daily with chickpeas imported from the Middle East.

Shouk is Hebrew for “market,” an image the owners hoped to capture in their restaurant, designed with a walk-in cooler that gets replenished every two days and an open kitchen for transparency. Before the pandemic, orders were called out, to create a little buzz in the place. A larger sibling is located at 395 Morse St. NE, near Union Market.

You don’t have to live close to either branch to enjoy Shouk, which rolled out its own delivery service, Hood Drop, to neighborhoods across the region in mid-March, partly to feed fans whose jobs used to put them downtown. More vegetables for everyone!
655 K St. NW. 202-945-4747. Open for takeout 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Delivery via Caviar, DoorDash, Postmates, Uber Eats and the restaurant’s Hood Drop (weekly schedule published online). Salads and sandwiches, $10 to $13.

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