For fans of Indian cooking, the Asian subcontinent's premier showcase is arguably located on the far side of the world, where the excellent eateries of London are an enduring legacy of a once grand empire.
But London jaunts aren't the most practical ways for Washingtonians to experience superb Indian dining. Venture instead to the much closer environs of Fairfax, where you'll find one of this area's finest Indian restaurants, The Connaught Place, just a block off Main Street.
The moniker is borrowed from a square in New Delhi of the same name, but it's obviously an English import. General Manager Sam Santosh oversees an attractive and dignified establishment of white linens, skillful service and relaxing atmosphere. Such polite and polished service has waned of late, particularly in a moderately priced restaurant, so Connaught Place is a welcome respite. And with food of such consistently fine quality, you understand what a gem awaits you.
This is Indian cooking of the old school, traditional dishes from a variety of the nation's regions executed with exceptional care. You'll not find the contemporary flourishes of trendy Indian-American places (such as Indique in Cleveland Park, for instance) but rather the steady hand of centuries of culinary custom.
Don't get me wrong -- there's nothing stuffy about The Connaught Place. Its energy comes from the kitchen of talented chef Sukh Winder Singh and his devoted following who fill the two inviting dining rooms out front.
Start your excursion with some traditional appetizer favorites. Mixed vegetable pakoras, fritters battered with basan flour (made from ground chickpeas) are an excellent opener. They're served steaming hot and are surprisingly light for a deep-fried food.
Another favorite are samosas -- turnovers stuffed with potatoes and green peas seasoned with cumin seeds and assorted spices. The pastry is flaky and crisp, surrounding a moist and savory filling.
An assorted appetizer platter that serves two includes a pair of my favorites -- chicken tikka and lamb seekh kebab. Both meats are charbroiled to give them a wonderfully smoky flavor and aroma. Two sauces add zest to the array of appetizers -- one of fresh mint and another of tamarind.
The only soup I tried -- chicken shorba -- was incredibly good. It's a traditional blend of chicken, ginger, garlic and cilantro whose flavors meld in a rich, satisfying broth.
Lamb entrées feature prominently on many Indian menus, and happily Connaught's is no exception. Rogan Josh, a Moghlai specialty, combines succulent pieces of fresh lamb with a yogurt-based curry sauce enhanced by a blend of Indian spices. Although the mention of curry brings thoughts of incendiary Thai dishes to many American minds, as employed here curry lends a subtle warmth to a rich, creamy sauce.
Whether your taste buds are especially delicate or hardy enough to withstand a fiery onslaught, the chef will gladly spice your selection as mildly or powerfully as you wish.
Most biryanis (whose major component is rice) end up being too dry, just plain boring, or both. Not so here with the fabulous lamb biryani. Generously loaded with tender morsels of lamb, the Basmati rice is exquisitely seasoned and finished with fresh chopped mint. It's accompanied by riata, a salad of yogurt and cucumbers -- a cool and refreshing counterbalance to the fragrant spices.
A signature dish that you must not miss is chicken tikka masala. Charbroiled pieces of chicken are simmered in a tomato-based masala sauce seasoned with the chef's secret medley of spices. This classic Indian dish will have you coming back again and again.
In the mood for variety? Try the tandoori mixed grill. It's a sizzling combo of jumbo shrimp, boti kebab (lamb marinated in yogurt, ginger and garlic) and chicken tikka. The shrimp were just a tad overcooked but hardly disappointing in their smoky allure. A chutney or two would have been a nice addition to the overall experience, though.
Indian cuisine is known for its freshly-baked flat breads, and no meal is complete without it. Eight varieties, all baked in the tandoor, are served steaming hot. My favorites are the ones made with whole wheat flour, particularly paratha, a multi-layered bread. We loved the garlic nan, a slight variation on an Indian staple, and chicken nan, stuffed with chopped tandoori chicken, cilantro and mild seasonings.
Dessert is not the highlight of Indian dining but you'll find a pleasant treat or two here if you still have room and your sweet tooth is calling. Mango kulfi, a traditional Indian ice cream, is nicely flavored with mango and cardamon, an aromatic spice native to India, which also enhances rice kheer, a not-too-sweet milky pudding.
With all the wonderful restaurants in Washington, it takes a lot to get me to a suburban restaurant. But I'm already daydreaming about another visit to this exceptional eatery.