Forget Bollywood–Café Spice is all about '60s boho chic, from the boxy light fixtures to the crazy clash of jacquard and pinstripes worthy of the Beatles during the Maharishi years. It's also about food, fragrant with cardamom, anise, ginger, and chilies, glammed up to suit the scene but still exotic, authentic–and spicy.
That Sushil Malhotra and Rajesh Bhardwaj chose to open an outpost of their stylish chainlet in Gaithersburg probably owes more to geography than anything else. Malhotra is best known for bringing regional Indian food to Manhattan in 1987, when–with the help of Indian cooking guru Madhur Jaffrey–he opened the much-touted Dawat. Executive chef Bhardwaj was with the Taj hotels in India before moving to New York and partnering with Malhotra.
Café Spice is a hipper, cheaper riff on the New York original. The first of these more casual restaurants opened in Greenwich Village in 1998. Since then, they've been working their way down the Mid-Atlantic, with outposts in Jersey City, Philadelphia, and now Maryland.
On the edge of a man-made lake at the Rio Entertainment Center and flanked by two popular local chains, Tara Thai and Guapo's, Café Spice pulses with shades of cinnamon, saffron, persimmon, and celadon. The drink menu–with ethnically inspired offerings like cucumber and mango martinis–is a hit with the younger crowd of neighborhood locals and Indian expats. If you want just a nip, order a flight of three minidrinks and share them. Wines can be had by the glass, but purists are likely to stick with tall Kingfishers and yogurt-based lassis.
Anyone who has ever been overwhelmed by a foot-long dosa–India's savory lentil-flour pancake–will warm to Café Spice's petite version. Stuffed with seasoned potato or chicken, these two-biters prove that less is sometimes more. The jingha masaledar–shrimp kissed with ginger sauce and dressed up with crisp curlicues of fried cilantro–is one of a handful of delicious starters. Complex flavors also inform saunfia paneer tikka, squares of house-made cheese with a layer of mint paste and a fiery sauce of tamarind yogurt spiked with fennel. All are fine examples of thoughtful Indian cooking. Even the more familiar "cigars" of minced lamb, known as seekh kebab, taste smokier, almost like lamb sausage, when they emerge from Café Spice's tandoor.
Breads usually arrive with main courses, and though they are not as crisp as those at Passage to India in Bethesda or Indique in DC, they are quite good. Skip the basket–breads get flabby when cut and stacked.
You'll need bread to swipe the bowls of preparations like the outstanding coconut-scented Goan fish curry made with tilapia or the fiery chicken chettinad steeped in tomato-and-onion gravy with hits of mustard seed and curry leaf. Punjabi-style braised lamb also packs heat. Ginger-and-lemon-marinated tilapia sautéed on the grill is a tamer but still successful balancing act, the flavors never overpowering the delicacy of the fish. A sauté of lamb with coconut and chilies dazzles the senses, and tandoori lamb chops are plain addictive–they taste like Indian barbecue. Tandoori shrimp are moister than at most places, and bone-in tandoori chicken is fine but not as interesting as the rest. Other classics such as samosas and saag paneer fall short for similar reasons. And while biryanis sport fresh flat green beans and squash, they taste more Western than Indian.
Food arrives at a stately pace, an indication that shortcuts aren't being taken in the kitchen. Service can be both overzealous and uninformed–servers didn't seem to know what was in specific dishes and didn't volunteer to find out. Yet on one occasion, four different servers asked if we wanted a highchair for our five-year-old, who hasn't deigned to sit in one since she was two.
Desserts include creamy house-made mango ice cream and top-notch gulab jamun, those crunchy cheese fritters in sugar syrup. When all was paid and done, the only sweet still standing was the grainy kheer, aka Indian rice pudding, an acquired taste for diners raised on creamy Cozy Shack.
Rio Entertainment Center, 9811 Washingtonian Blvd., Suite L-11, Gaithersburg; 301-330-6611; cafespice.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
Atmosphere: Rich hues and snug booths. The outdoor cafe overlooks a lake with geese.
Food: Regional Indian with classic dishes and house innovations. Large filled dosas and wrap sandwiches made with tandoori breads round out offerings at lunch.
Price: Main courses $6.95 to $8.25 at lunch, $8.95 to $15.95 at dinner; available à la carte or as platters ($13.95 to $18.95) with bread, basmati rice, lentils, and vegetable. Dinner for two: about $50.
Value: Excellent. Creative fare should cost more than this.
Wine list: A short list, but beer or a yogurt lassi is more authentic.
Bottom line: A great addition to the area and worth seeking out if you love Indian food.