Pappe: 1317 14th St. NW. 202-888-8220. pappedc.com.
Open: Dinner daily, lunch weekdays, brunch weekends.
Prices: Small plates $7 to $22, mains $12 to $38.
Sound check: 81 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following review was originally published Jan. 2, 2019.
Some like it hot. Pappe’s Indian fare is made for those who do.
It’s a new year. Maybe you splurged last month. Maybe you’re trying to cut back. Then again, maybe you can have your gulab jamun and eat it, too.
Pappe, the fledgling Indian restaurant on 14th Street NW, has a deal for you! Simply ask for its Maharajah thali. Twenty bucks buys you 10 different tastes, everything displayed around a hill of fragrant rice on a round silver tray: tender cubes of chicken in a tomato-onion gravy the color of pumpkin; soft bites of lamb and caramelized onion in a curry the shade of root beer; yellow lentils fairly pulsing with red chiles; mushrooms and bell peppers in a paste of roasted spices — and that’s just the start.
Should you wish to ratchet up the heat, there’s pickled okra ringing the edge of the platter. Conversely, a little cup of raita stands by to cool things down. The breads rounding out the feast include warm-from-the-oven naan (opt for the disk freckled with garlic and cilantro) and a cracker-y scroll of papadum. There’s even dessert, one day a soothing, saffron-infused rice pudding finished with slivered almonds.
The caveat: The “king” of thalis — a kaleidoscope of colors and a quilt of flavors — is offered only at lunch. If you’re like some eaters, however, this elaborate midday spread is also dinner and a midnight snack. (Guilty as charged — and happy as heck, as my Minnesota mom might say.)
As far as I’m concerned, there can never be too many sources for my favorite cuisine. So I welcome Pappe, even if its narrow dining room and bar replaced my pet fast-food purveyor: Popeye’s, where I like it spicy and with red beans and rice and some coleslaw, thanks.
Pappe’s chef and co-owner, Sanjay Mandhaiya, 44, comes to the District from two Saffron restaurants in Northern Virginia, bringing with him memories of cooking with his mother in his native New Delhi. Mandhaiya’s business partner and longtime friend is Shankar Puthran, who leads the kitchen at Saffron in Ashburn (the Falls Church branch was sold to open their joint venture in Washington). The chefs’ close relationship explains the name of the newcomer, which opened in June. Pappe translates from Punjabi to “brother.”
The setting is as vivid and varied as a thali, with a palette that suggests an Indian bazaar. Eyes are immediately drawn to the ceiling, from which swags of fabric in gold, red and other spice colors form a tent of sorts over the heads of diners gathered on the banquette that runs nearly the length of the room. The walls reveal designers with a sly sense of humor. Up front, near the choice window tables, is a whimsical drawing of a couple maharajahs on motor bikes. Dressing up the suck-in-your-stomach booths in the back are tweaked, black-and-white photographs that elicit smiles upon close inspection. In one, a regally appointed elephant is positioned next to a smart car. In another long-ago portrait, the children in a well-to-do family sport a Wizards jersey or cap. Pappe only takes its food seriously.
Let me amend that. There are some surprise middling dishes on the menu. The vegetable samosas are heavy, with undercooked pastry shells and one-note fillings. And as impressive as it looks, aloo papdi chaat is a too-sweet tower of chickpeas, potatoes, cumin yogurt and tamarind chutney. Masala roast duck brings tough cubes of duck and little evidence of the promised coconut.
But there’s more to praise than pan here, starting with soft crab cakes — built from jumbo lump, mayonnaise and a little blizzard of green chiles — and ending with ice cream infused with cardamom. Heat seekers will be pleased: “I don’t hold back on the spices,” says the chef. Sure enough, Mandhaiya is not afraid to unleash some grenades. “Spicy” chicken tikka is truth in advertising, a little barge of yogurt-slathered poultry pieces that pick up their color from Kashmiri chiles and additional fire from Thai peppers. Goat is served in a cloak of what looks and tastes like lava, thanks in part to red chiles and jalapeños in the blend of roasted tomato. Hot heads should also gravitate to the smoky mash of grilled eggplant, tomatoes and garlic called baingan bartha, among the menu’s multiple meatless pleasures.
And if you don’t care for fire? Reach for a lassi or raita. Molecules in dairy, as in yogurt, are said to attract and dissolve the active component of chile peppers, capsaicin.
Northern Indian food is the focus, but not the sole attraction. The chef nods to the south of his country with uttapam, the savory pancake made with a batter of rice, lentils and fenugreek. A lattice of chopped scallions and herbs makes for a crisp and luscious surface, and in combination with some coconut chutney, the appetizer immerses you in the tropics. Curries run to vindaloo, the vinegar-stoked dish featuring a choice of chicken, shrimp, cod or lamb. The chef says he learned to sting at a roadside shack in Goa, where vindaloo, introduced by Portuguese colonists, is popular. He personalizes his version with malt vinegar rather than the traditional white, and more and varied chiles.
Pappe’s biryani is not an exact copy of what you might find in Hyderabad, where the rice casserole is as prized as any pearl or temple. Trust me when I tell you that’s a good thing, though, because the biryanis abroad are so rich and filling, only marathon runners, linebackers and construction workers should really be finishing them. Mandhaiya’s biryani relies on just enough ghee, or clarified butter, to lubricate the mound of rice and meat (lamb is best) whose arrival envelops diners in a cloud of sweet spices: clove, mace, cardamom and on.
Pappe has retired its very good cod sheathed in a golden sleeve of chickpea flour, a small plate served with a slaw of radishes and carrots. Look for it to reappear next summer, says the chef. I, for one, will be counting the months until the dish — a testament to frying, fish sans chips — returns. By the time you read this, fried hake flavored with curry leaves should help lessen the loss.
There are other, less expensive thalis, by the way, including platters assembled with fewer tastes or only vegetables. The spreads, priced between $14 and $17, are worth lingering over, but designed so that worker bees can get them within 10 minutes of ordering. Pappe is as thoughtful as it is filling.