Rice isn’t one of those sexy grains, like quinoa or farro, and even the ethnic restaurants that feature it don’t often grant it a proper showcase. How many times have you skipped the Spanish rice at a Mexican restaurant? Or done more than pick at the grains that prop up the fish in a bowl of Japanese chirashi? Now dig into the lemon rice at Curry Leaf, which opened in May. Steamed to a light fluffiness, the rice is tossed with cashews and cilantro, sprinkled with turmeric, then given a spritz of lemon that brings out the bass notes in the nuts and lends each grain an addictive kick. Or try the almost-as-good tamarind rice, sweet from the molasses-like fruit. And if too many second-rate curry houses have left you thinking that biryani is an unruly mound of greasy rice and repurposed meat, then you need to spend time with the version here, which puts the meat in service of the grains.
It takes talent to turn a humble starch into a sustaining memory. The good news is that chef Saravan Krishnan excels at more than just rice. Krishnan commanded the kitchen at the late Udupi Palace in Langley Park, which in its heyday was one of the area’s best and least expensive restaurants, a feast of the bright and colorful dishes of the Indian south.
He has reprised a good bit of that repertoire here. Breads are a point of emphasis, and not just disks of naan. More savory than sweet and more crunchy than soft, the doughnuts called vada are delicate with cilantro and ginger and demand to be dunked in sweet-and-sour sambar or coconut chutney. The crepes called dosas are pried from a ghee-laden griddle, and the pleasantly fermented taste in the rice batter comes through even after you’ve eaten your way to the center, which bulges with potatoes and onions.
Southern Indian cooking isn’t exclusively vegetarian, but many of Krishnan’s best dishes are meatless. If not handled properly, okra is slimy; here the spears are slit, dipped in hot oil until they crunch, and tossed with tomato chutney. Krishnan uses the same technique for his baby eggplants, sizzling them in oil along with curls of coconut, peanuts, and chilies. Chana masala, a chickpea curry, is as satisfying as a great bowl of chili.
Meat was off-limits at his old perch, but not here, and Krishnan is capable of reaching across the aisle. Many of the meat curries have the intensity of an all-day braise, though you may look elsewhere after a few bites. Not because they’re not good—the gravy in the Hyderabadi-style goat curry lingers on the tongue like a demi-glace—but because the meat is seldom as tender as it should be and it’s not uncommon to find fat or gristle.
Another Hyderabadi dish, a shrimp masala, is lighter and displays Krishnan’s gift for spicing; think of a heat that comes at you in waves of competing flavors—in this case with curry leaves, mustard seeds, and cilantro.
If you’re inclined to stick with familiar tastes such as palak paneer, you won’t have a bad meal. But the menu is studded with dishes you won’t find in other Indian restaurants. There’s uppama, a soothing cream of wheat with tomatoes. Or haleem, a rich lentil dish. The best of this bunch is a thick, cinnamony egg curry. Tear off a piece of paratha, the coiled fry bread, and dip it in, pinching pieces from the hard-boiled eggs. Bliss.
Bread, eggs, pepper, rice. So often we’re made to think a great restaurant meal depends on the sourcing of expensive ingredients. It’s heartening to taste the work of a chef who can do so much with so little.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.