Heritage India
[from August 1999 issue]

Oh no! Not another Indian restaurant! But this is not just any other Indian restaurant. This is Heritage India with food fit for the Maharajah and served in a setting reminiscent of the pink palaces of Jaipur. It's lush. It's sumptuous. And the food is exquisite.

Indeed, this newcomer breaks all the molds and shows Westerners what fine Indian cooking should be. The curries are subtle, refined, fiery, multidimensional, and velvety. The tandoori dishes--at least, the meats--have been marinated and rubbed in various spicings and the finished products fairly sing with grace and complexity. Why hasn't any other Indian chef cooked like this before? Why has all this glory been hidden away in drab, lifeless curries and tough kebabs?

Plan on gathering together a group to dine here. Then, over a sweet-tart Pimm's Cup (isn't that what the British drank under the noonday sun?) scan the menu and then, if you can, make a simple decision. With so many choices, there's safety in numbers, because you can sample and explore without becoming sated. When I asked about ordering both a tandoori dish and a curry (for one) the maitre d' looked positively aghast and warned me off. Too much, he mumbled. But he countered with an offer of a mini portion; this was, after all, a slow-cooking curry of the Dum classification, so it didn't need any cooked-to-order complications.

Always include at least one appetizer, though how you winnow out the less interesting may be a problem. I can assure you that the Manalorian Fish Masala, a slightly crusted salmon fillet in potent herbs, should top your list. But then the Chicken Chaat--boneless cubes of marinated chicken--and the Aloo Tak--crisp potato skins with a date-tamarind sauce, creamy homemade yogurt (nothing in the world like Dannon's), and fresh mint--will give you another look at potatoes. Other appetizer choices include a shrimp salad, minced lamb kabobs, vegetable fritters, and samosas, the last having become something of a cliche at an Indian meal.

Entrees are a toss-up: You can be exclusive and order a for-one Nawabi Khazana thali, which combines both meat and vegetarian dishes in mini portions (there's also an all-vegetarian version). This is served on a grand silverplate tray crafted to hold several small bowls for food. Or you can mix and match the curries and tandooris for a splendid Moghul-inspired meal: Either (or both, with enough people) the grilled prawns (Tandoori Jingha) or the grilled lamb kabobs (Peshawari Boti) are stand-out dishes, with multiple layers of seasonings carefully applied. Indeed, the lamb includes four enormous cubes of tender meat, probably equalling about one pound's worth of food.

As for curries, the Dum Ka Murch is especially unusual, for it's representative of the Dum style of cooking, a traditional slow-cook method not much in favor at restaurants where speed is more important than quality. In fact, the only other place I've seen this kind of cooking is at the special Dum restaurant at the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi. Yet surely, all the curries here are singular and spectacular--it's just that I'll never get beyond the Dum chicken with thigh meat cubes that have cooked so slowly that they've absorbed all the flavors.

There are side dishes--alas, the rice is extra; the tandoori meats and the curries come unadorned--and you must absolutely order several of the breads. For here, even the standard kulcha is nonstandard: Your choice, cheese, onion, or minced lamb mixed with the dough.

And of course, the desserts are rather extraordinary, or at least, the Shahi Tukra is, a sinfully rich bread pudding with raisins and almonds. The rice pudding seems lackluster by comparison.

To sum up an evening (or lunch, for that matter): Sensational.

Heritage India, 2400 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 333-3120. Hours: Sun.-Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm & 5:30-10 pm; Sat., 5:30-11pm; closed Sun. Price range: $8.50-$16.50, the thali meals are extra. Major credit cards accepted.

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