Woodlands, the busy curry house in Langley Park, has built its reputation on a command of the southern-Indian repertoire—its crepe-like dosas are the biggest attraction—and on its superlative weekend buffet. Regulars know that the gruff, pack-’em-in service and commissary-style setting are small hardships to endure when they mean low-cost feasting on satisfying curries and hot, fresh-from-the-tandoor breads.
It’s a bit of a shock, then, to walk into the owners’ latest endeavor, Jewel of India, which occupies a storefront in the drab Hillandale Shopping Center, and find an open, high-ceilinged room that sports a bar, well-spaced tables laid with handsome woven mats, designer plates, and warm lighting. There are cocktails (including a refreshing pineapple caipirinha) and even mocktails (mint limeade). It’s as if Woodlands tapped the 3½-star Indian restaurant Rasika in DC’s Penn Quarter to perform a style makeover.
The good news is that the cocktails and upgraded cutlery aren’t substitutes for quality in the cooking. The gravies are wonderfully complex—rich and robustly spiced, with a resonance that belies their cost. The naan is cooked to order and comes to the table hot, its surface lightly blistered and glistening with butter. There aren’t many better versions of dal or rice, and certainly none cheaper.
The higher-toned setting is the most obvious departure, but the owners also have branched out in the kitchen—most notably by putting meat front and center. There are stellar renditions of butter chicken, chicken korma, and shrimp jalfrezi, the latter made memorable by a gravy both chunky and pungent. Along with these northern-Indian staples, the menu features several from the western part of the country, including Goan shrimp, several preparations of vindaloo, and a Mangalorean-style chicken suka, thrilling in its blend of fresh coconut, sweet onions, and mustard seeds. A handful of Indo-Chinese dishes—subcontinental interpretations of quick-serve Chinese staples—add fun and variety.
The kitchen also emphasizes vegetarian dishes from the north, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they provide some of the best reasons to visit. I’m enamored of the malai kofta (tender, well-spiced lentil patties submerged in a rich gravy), the bhindi dopiaza (okra split lengthwise and fried until crisp, then tossed with chilies and onions), and the palak paneer (a lightly sweet bowl of spinach studded with soft cubes of house-made cheese).
If your goal is to eat broadly and keep costs down, it pays to build around the thali, a sampler platter made up of a half dozen veggie dishes, and supplement that order with a couple of meat-based curries.
It also pays to save room for dessert. You’ll find good versions of carrot halwa—a warm Punjabi dish of sweetened mashed carrots, milk, and almonds—and kheer, an aromatic, cardamom-scented rice pudding.
The latter is an off-menu dish that you have to ask for. The waiter’s face lit up when we told him how much we liked it.
“Ah,” he said, “I am so happy to hear that.”
A smiling waiter—yet another departure. And another reason to cherish this unexpected jewel.
This article appears in the December 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.