Tucked into a strip mall along Vienna’s main drag, Turmeric is the latest venture from Suku Nair, owner of the nearby Amma Vegetarian Kitchen. Nair and his family—son Srijith and wife Sridevi help run his ventures—first filled the space with a fast-casual concept (think Chipotle gone Indian) called Aditi Bistro, but customers said they’d prefer a sit-down spot with a bar. So Nair swapped out the bright color scheme for earthy, muted tones, lined one wall with carvings of Indian deities, and converted the back counter to a bar. He called the new place Turmeric, after the yellow seasoning ubiquitous in Indian cooking.
Tandoori-cooked chicken wings, juicy and greaseless, are a great way to start a meal, and crispy samosas have a nice hint of heat. For the main event, curries are divided into “regional“ and “traditional.” Two dishes from the Kerala state in southwest India stand out among the regional choices: the Cochin shrimp curry—meaty prawns bobbing in a silky, coconut-laced stew—and Malabar fish curry, filled with tender chunks of salmon.
Traditional options include a bright-green saag—the spinach-based curry is less heavy than typical, creamy renditions—with an almost grassy flavor. A dish of yellow lentils, subtly seasoned with garlic, ginger, and mustard seed, is similarly lightened, and only a few tiny pools of oil dot the lamb rogan josh, with gamey hunks of meat and fragrant gravy.
Nair and his family chose the name Turmeric—known as much for medicinal properties as for flavor enhancement—to highlight his kitchen’s emphasis on healthy food. Since his Aditi days, the restaurateur has been encouraging his chefs to hold back on fats and to use olive oil in place of ghee, the clarified butter employed in abundance in other Indian kitchens.
The result is food that’s vibrant with flavor but doesn’t leave you feeling stuffed or unenthusiastic about your next meal—even, Nair insists, if you choose the $10 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet: “I have lunch here every day, and by 4 o’clock I’m so hungry I have to eat something.”
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.