The food of southern India doesn't enjoy much representation in Washington. Malgudi in Glover Park makes me wonder why. Introduced in February by the owners of the steady Heritage India above it, the offshoot makes a great compromise for diners who eschew meat (cauliflower fried with ginger and chilies, potato filled dosas made with yellow lentils) and those who embrace it (gongura lamb ignited with a paste of Indian sorrel, chilies and lemon juice). Seek out the advice of co-owner Mitul Tuli, a gracious guide to the menu and a frequent presence in the room, which, with antique paintings and ornate mango wood door, is more stylish than its prices suggest. Tuli is the presence who explains the kothu poratta - miced bread with chopped chicken or lamb, bound with egg and rich with spices - is a favorite of truck drivers who need hearty sustenance. "Indian stuffing," she calls the soft golden comfort. She also shares that Malgudi is named for an Indian village that exists only in a collection of short stories. The inspiration is fiction, but the crack food is fact.
In the restaurant world, everyone everywhere seems to be downsizing. Part of this phenomenon can be explained by the ominous drumbeat from health authorities, who warn that super sized portions of food are behind the creation of a nation of triple chins. But fashion plays a role in the equation, too: Right this moment, if you're an American chef and you're not offering itt-bitty this and teeny-weeny that, you simply aren't in vogue. You know the scene has changed when a restaurant serving Asian street food is awarded three stars by the New York Times, and dessert in a trendy San Francisco eatery means a milkshake served in a shot glass (two slurps and it's history). Once strictly Spanish, "tapas" now can be found in Chinese, French and Indian venues, and increasing numbers of restaurants are rechristening their traditional courses. Fresh: "small plates" and "bites." Leftovers from yesteryear: "appetizers" and "starters."
Riding that trend is Heritage India in Dupont Circle, a sibling to the excellent Indian restaurant of the same name in Glover Park. "Contemporary Indian fare," the menu says by way of introduction, before moving on to "small plates of street food." If golgappas are any indication of what they're eating on the run in Bombay or Calcutta, I want to request a transfer overseas. This snack consists of four tiny round cups with shells as thin as paper, and a pinch of diced potato and chickpeas in their centers. Presented in individual spoons, the crisp-soft bites are made complete at the table by a thin but wicked liquid spiked with tamarind, paprika, roasted cumin and mint. The resulting flood of flavors -- wild fun -- raises my expectations.
Luckily, there's more where those golgappas came from, including chickpea noodles, puffed rice, shallots and fresh herbs nestled in a peppery lentil wafer shell -- the vibrant circus of textures and tastes known as bhel puri. Fat chicken drumsticks glisten beneath a glaze of sweet chili sauce that will have you licking your fingertips, while lemon grass and coconut add heat and sweet to a martini glass filled with warm ringlets of squid mixed with soft onion and more. A bar of salmon paved with fresh-cracked spices is a nice idea; too bad the fish tasted tired when I got it.
The further this kitchen strays from India, however, the more I wish it didn't. In one misguided "tapa," a ragout of chicken curry is ladled over a stolid slice of polenta. In another, pieces of Parmesan-sprinkled naan are offered to scoop up a garlicky black bean dip that speaks to the American Southwest. Both dishes are like a new puppy: They try too hard to please.
The pillars around the room and the bar with its faux peaked roof look a little Grecian, reminders that in an earlier incarnation, this location poured retsina and served squid stuffed with feta cheese. Otherwise, the interior sings in tune with the cooking. Greeting diners up front are a gently tinkling tiled fountain and handsome portraits of members of long-ago Indian ruling classes. Waving from the rear of the expansive peach dining room is a seated, bronze-colored Buddha . The banquettes are swaddled in gold-, rust- and green-striped fabric that suggests autumn, a palette echoed in the smart vests worn by the waiters. Lush plants and carved wooden screens advance the theme, too, though the soundtrack is all over the map. Sometimes the music places you in a disco; at other moments, the sounds are so tranquil, you wouldn't be surprised to find a masseuse hovering over you.
Pasta is not what you expect to eat in an Indian restaurant, and probably not the direction you want to pursue at Heritage India, based on what I've tried of the five so-called "pastabilities." A collection of decent mussels, scallops and fish is wasted on a fistful of wet angel-hair pasta, for example. Worse are mushroom-stuffed ravioli, overcooked to a pasty mush, draped in a grainy cashew gravy that accentuates the problem, and ringed with bland vegetables.
On the other hand, dishes from the tandoor, or clay oven, are every bit as memorable as those I've sampled across town at the original Heritage India. Onion seeds and yogurt lend crackle and tang to grilled shrimp, and the saffron-tinged chicken proves meaty and moist. Luscious black lentils and fluffy basmati rice enhance both meals. The warm-from-the oven breads also are very good, and if you order the blistered wheat bread with mint or the naan with crumbled lamb, they come with more than a mere suggestion of herb or meat. Any of the breads can be put to good use wiping plates clean of their sauces, including the vinegar-and-pepper-ignited gravy that gives the lamb vindaloo its explosive edge.
Indian desserts typically don't get much respect, and, frankly, there's reason for this: Often, if they're not sweeter than a Disney heroine, they taste as if they'd been made with grandmother's perfume. The endings at Heritage India are a better breed. Rice pudding -- cool, loose, creamy and mixed with plump white raisins -- is sheer comfort, while kulfi is a model of that slightly chewy Indian ice cream. Piping hot milk balls -- like ultramoist doughnut holes -- arrive in a light syrup with slivered almonds.
The new Heritage India is big and beautiful, with service far more polished than anything I've experienced in Glover Park. Still, I'd trade some of those good looks downtown for more food that was less hip. Tortured ingredients are easy to find; superior naan and tandoori prawns -- now those are things to celebrate
One day, Heritage India might decide to train its staff to better interact with its clientele, so as not to give diners the impression of rushing them through their meals -- or forgetting them altogether. Despite that annoying habit, the two-story dining room in Glover Park (there's also a branch downtown) gets my nod for Indian cooking that is as sophisticated as it gets in Washington. There's much to compete for your attention, from delicate vegetable fritters to juicy chicken tikka, from zesty strips of grouper blended with tomatoes and peppers to velvety baby eggplant draped in a creamy sesame sauce. Herb-laced spinach, possibly the best palak makai in town, reminds me that the menu welcomes vegetarians with open arms, while the lamb vindaloo beckons (and satisfies) fire eaters. The sauces are distinct, the tandoor-baked breads hot and tasty. And the setting is at once rich and comfortable. Heritage India's spacious dining areas are painted in soothing pumpkin colors, graced with handsome portraits and swathed in elegant fabrics.
The popularity of Spanish tapas, those small plates of food meant to accompany drinks, has inspired restaurateurs to search their cuisine for items suited for grazing. Middle Eastern restaurants had a natural in mezze. Those small plates are so popular that some restaurants, like Zaytinya, have all but dispensed with main courses.
The new Heritage India (1337 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-331-1414)--sister to the restaurant in DC's Glover Park--calls itself a "Brasserie & Lounge" and has devoted almost a page of its menu to "Contemporary Indian Fare," much of which is small plates based on the fare offered by street hawkers in India. These include familiar items like samosas, pakoras, and kebabs, plus some cross-cultural experiments--a roasted portobello mushroom with crab masala; a hummus of roasted garlic and black beans with a Parmesan naan; and tandoor-smoked mozzarella. The small plates are between $3.95 and $7.95. A section of pastas further expands the menu with selections like Goan Bouillabase, fish and shellfish on angel-hair pasta with cilantro-pesto rouille.
After you've seen the raj-inspired art in the dining room, don't miss the scenes from the Kama Sutra that decorate the toilets--but leave the kids at the table.
EXPANDING ITS EMPIRE: the tandoori prawns and the black lentils we enjoy so much at the five- year-old Heritage India (2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-3120) in glover park will soon be available in Dupont circle, where the restaurant's owner, Sanjeev tuli, is poised to open a branch with the same name at 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW. The offshoot, which replaces acropolis, will share the same warm palette of the original but also offer a 50-foot-long-bar and a 16-seat room for private dining. And the menu will be broadened to include "an Indian version of tapas," says tuli. That means salmon stuffed samosas, calamari presented in a martini glass and Indian-spiced noodle soups, the restaurateur revealed in a sneak preview. The snack-size dishes will be priced between $3.95-$6.95.