Heritage India is either one of the best new restaurants to open this year or one of the worst. There’s no arguing which it is the night of my first visit. One appetizer of gently spiced potatoes is set in a bed of yogurt that’s so divinely creamy I’d gladly sip the stuff from a tea cup with my pinkie raisedpotato salad re-imagined as an argument for never-ending spring. It gets better from there: Crisply broiled prawns redolent of onion seeds and lemon. Tandoor-grilled chicken submerged in a rich tomato cream sauce. Juicy strips of grouper simply tossed with onion, bell peppers, and tomato. As our waiter sets herb-y creamed spinach and corn onto my plate, he does so artfully, spooning the food so that it adheres to curved ridge of the plate. A bowl of rice emits a cloud of steam, and once the waiter catches a noseful he brims with lust. “There’s nothing like basmati,” he proclaims.
Where that waiter went I have no idea, but I do know that on successive visits to Heritage India I find myself wishing that he were back. Never again is our meal administered by someone with such admirable enthusiasm, by someone who appreciates that rice can kick ass in such a way that it demands to be remarked upon. Instead, we wait a lotfor a table, for water, for menus, for the check. But slow service isn’t the half of it. At lunch, a waiter is about to lead me to my seat when he’s upbraided by a man wearing a suit instead of a uniform. “Why are you being funny with me?” the suit barks. “Put that menu back. I told you that the table’s not ready.” The sniper then looks at me and apologizes: “I’m sorry. He’s new. He doesn’t know”as if needlessly bitching someone out in front of a customer were proof of his own professional maturity. With that I’m left standing, and I notice that several tables, including the one I’m eventually given, are, in fact, clean and set for service.
There are restaurants that earn the right to serve food with a slightly upturned nose, and Heritage India could certainly become such a place. From the outside, the location seems like a dud: Sitting above Faccia Luna, the restaurant is tucked away enough that Wisconsin Avenue pedestrians who’ve been passing by the place for two months may still not know that it exists. But the restaurant makes up for what it loses in walk-by traffic with a dining room that begs you to return. The space, formerly occupied by the once-renowned Germaine’s, splits into two sections. The front room has a view, the back feels sequestered, and each is appointed with the kind of accoutermentsbeautiful glass beer mugs, ceramic serving dishes, rugs you wouldn’t want to spill onthat seem picked to impress important people.
Chef Sudhir Seth, who hails from New Delhi, is accustomed to dazzling heavyweights. His last gig was as executive chef at the Bombay Club, the power-dining palace near the White House. In his former job, Seth made some of the most refined Indian food in town, and he’s clearly striving for something similar at Heritage, which has sister outposts in Germany and the Czech Republic.
Seth’s food tastes inspired without being fusion-y or cute. In America, tandoor-grilled meats are nearly as common as tacos, and Seth’s creations serve as a reminder as to why. Cubes of lamb are crisp and tender and fragrant of cumin. Saffron-scented juice squirts from chicken cloaked in yogurt. Paneer “brochettes” arrive having been charred with onion, tomato, and bell pepper. An appetizer of calamari is similarly sparejust a plate of sauteed squid rings slicked in a reddish oil that hints of coconut, lemon, and spicy heat.
A lot of fuss goes into making less sightly dishes more visually appealing, but never to the detriment of the food. Lentils may arrive in a handsome cauldron, but the dish’s appeal is rudimentary: The lentils are cooked in cream and butter. Even the complex dishes achieve a certain clarity. Lamb vindaloo is searingly hot, but you can still taste the vinegar in the sauce, and the meat is meltingly tender. A mushy dish of baby eggplant and bell peppers is brought to life by a whiff of sesame. Crisp okra gets tossed with onion and dusted in mango powder. The spinach in sag paneer, even subsumed by cheese, tastes fresh.
It’s no small feat to feed someone so many flawless meals and still end up turning him off. Maybe I’m sensitive: If there’s one thing that I hate about my job it’s that an interest in food that costs real money is often assumed to reflect some ulterior motive, as if ordering foie gras were akin to dropping the name of some fabulous person you don’t even know. The stereotype isn’t undeserved, and the guy in the suit makes me think of it. He seems to revel in working the room without having to do the work of real waiters. One night I ask him about a menu item and he tells me not to order it. “It’s very Indian,” he says. “Very nuanced.” I order it anyway, and the potato-stuffed pepper isn’t nearly as puzzling as the suit insinuated. Later in the meal, he stops by our table to clarify that he meant no offense earlier. I tell him no sweat, and my friend asks if he might hook us up with some water. The suit says sure, but he never brings it.
Heritage India, 2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 333-3120.
Limes. They’re not just for cocktails anymore. Just ask the reader who claims he’s “still puckering” from the larb gai he ate at the new Timtida. The Thai restaurant is owned by the same folks who run Sala Thai in Dupont Circle, and the dish, a mixture of ground chicken, Thai spices, and lime juice, always reminds me of good weather; the seasonings can make you sweat but the citrus is always there, cooling you down for the next bite. Timtida is still finding its legs (what’s that hard stuff in my sautéed scallops?), but it’s got promise. “I’ve been there three times already,” claims the reader. “I’ve only brought home leftovers once.”
Timtida, 3506 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 966-7123. Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.