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A typical evening at Aatish on the Hill begins with a gracious greeting and ends with a convivial request to return sometime soon. As quickly as the water glasses are filled, a pappadum wafer is brought to the table, accompanied by a small dish of coriander sauce and another filled with spicy pickles. You’ll likely choose a bread (naan, onion kulcha) to eat along with, say, tandoori chicken or shrimp masala. Entrees are accompanied by basmati rice topped with a few peas.
The dining room is small, intimate but not cramped. Other diners’ conversations are nearly as audible as your own. At some point, a diner will chat up the owner, Iftikhar Khan, and ask something like, “So what makes this place Pakistani?”
For starters, Khan will say, “I’m from Pakistan,” and then proceed to deliver a brief history lesson. After working for years in the restaurant business, including a stint at McDonald’s, he grew tired of seeing scores of local Indian restaurants but only a handful of takeout joints that served the food of his homeland. Khan’s brother, Mohammad, is a seasoned chef. So the two got a poster of the Taj Mahal, slapped it on the wall along with some other pictures, and opened Aatish on the Hill.
It’s hard to distinguish Aatish’s Pakistani cuisine from what many would recognize as northern Indian food. But if you strain, some singular details emerge. The biryani arrives in a domelike mold and is more alive than what we’re used to; it’s filled with peppers and herbs cut large enough for you to chew. Khan claims to be the only local restaurateur serving shahi korma, a lamb-and-yogurt dish that’s hardly out of the ordinary but certainly delicious. Perhaps inspired by the environment, a couple sharing a chicken kebab at the table next to me one night bemoan the recent passing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Aatish’s menu is otherwise comprised of Indian fare familiar to American palates, and the restaurant secures most of its commendable distinctions by conventional means. The staff is delightful. Dressed in half-tuxes, they don’t let up even when your party is the only one in the dining room. The food ranges from average to awesome, which is all the more impressive considering how cheap it is (generally $7 for entrees at lunch, $9 at dinner). Even the decaf is good.
An appetizer platter displays the restaurant’s Indian finger-food repertoire, and if you order it with a bowl of mulligatawny soup, finely pureed and served with a slice of lemon, it’s all you’ll need. Vegetable pakorasbattered and deep-fried onion, cauliflower, spinach, and potatoand samosas are delicately crisp, and excellent when bathed in coriander chutney. Beef and lamb kebabs, like their entree-portion counterparts and unlike the chicken tikka appetizer, which is fatty, contain succulent chunks of herb-flecked meat.
Anyone who has a steady Indian-food habit probably won’t be bowled over by Aatish’s entrees, but it’s hard not to be struck by the sturdy, low-fuss expertise of their preparation. The dishes that emerge from the tandoor arrive sizzling on a skillet; they’re unassuming wonders that incorporate charred, deeply marinated meats and healthy cuts of vegetables glistening with oil. Salmon is a particular favorite. It’s kissed with lemon and seasoned just right: The tandoori spices flex their muscles, but the fish isn’t overwhelmed.
On a couple of visits we experience some blunders: Khan coaxes us into ordering extra raita that we don’t need; we’re given a lamb dish made with, um, chicken. But mostly we’re slowly seduced by the food. Two entrees prepared in a wok, one with lamb, the other chicken, reprise the tandoori successes, only this time there’s a thick, garlicky sauce binding the dishes together. The homemade cheese in the excellent palak panir has the texture of firm tofu and a sweet, earthy, nutty flavor. The croquettes in the malai kofta are made with pureed almonds, potatoes, ginger, garlic, pepper, and a few other things my waiter can’t quite place. The dish is as luscious as it sounds. I can’t remember the last time I was so enamored of starch.
Khan explains that as he continues to establish his clientele, which after only four months of business appears quite devoted (Bob, a reader, tried the place a dozen times in its first month or soand he doesn’t even eat lamb), the menu will start to look less familiar. But Aatish has already achieved the all too rare feat of reminding diners that Capitol Hill is a neighborhood as well as a place to work. “Honey,” says one man, signing his check and breaking the silence between him and his wife, “this should be our Hill place.”
Aatish on the Hill, 609 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. (202) 544-0931.
A past Y&H blitz of the Southwest waterfront restaurant district got reader Mitchell Baxter to thinking. “If you’re looking for a place to really do a sendup on, there’s a place that is absolutely atrocious that’s called Chez Nous [Cafe],” he says. “The food is without exception the most disgusting anyone’s ever tried to serve me in my life.” Baxter goes on to detail how the fake crab in his seafood dish was so horrendous he could stomach only a bite. Having been warned, I am cautious during my subsequent visit to Chez Nous. The place is so filled with kitschy knickknacks there’s hardly room for customers. Which is probably a good thing. If you can’t imagine an inedible Caesar, think of tepid dressing that tastes mostly of egg. The “world famous” chicken sandwich allegedly contains garlic, though I find myself grabbing for the salt shaker to give the thing some flavor; the shaker’s empty. Another reader called to recommend skipping Chez Nous’ food but stopping in for a glass of wine. This wouldn’t be a bad way to go, except the restaurant stocks only a mysterious house vintage. The waiter who delivers (and presumably poured) our glasses of merlot can’t even tell us what kind it is.
Chez Nous Cafe, 1066 31st St. NW. (202) 333-2134.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.