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The paint never really dries at some restaurants. The waitrons perpetually act as if it’s their first day on the job, and the food suggests that the kitchen staff is similarly green. There’s usually some makeshift office set up at one of the tables, where a managerial type sweats over a calculator, hoping that the numbers will somehow add up. The sign for the bathroom is handwritten in Magic Marker.The menu is a food-stained sheet of Xerox paper folded in half; more often than not, several of the items aren’t available. Eventually, the restaurant closes for good.
Taj India has been open more than three months when I first visit, but it feels as if I’ve interrupted the final stages of its setup. It’s an odd time of day to be eating lunchnearly 2 o’clockand upon seeing me in the doorway a woman says, “We’re closed.” She means that the lunch buffet is tapped, but I assume she means the restaurant hasn’t yet opened for business. Tables are set in the front of the dining room, which is illuminated by sunlight. But even on later visits, when I return during prime dinner hours, the rear of the restaurant is dark, and at the very back there’s a bass guitar hanging on the wall of a cluttered room that looks as if it’s being used either for storage or band practice. As I turn around to leave, the woman says, “I can fix you something if you like.”
Even if the kitchen weren’t out of the turkey samosa, the fish tikka (as is the case on every visit), and the shrimp tandoori, Taj India’s menu would offer relatively few choices.
The cuisine is north Indian, and Taj offers a handful of the requisite itemschicken masala, daal, a few tandoori dishes, all the breads. At my late lunch, curry is what I’m in the mood for, and chicken curry happens be what the woman recommends; it’s mild, but the gravy is creamy, rich, and quite garlicky. Like all of Taj’s entrees, it’s accompanied by basmati rice and a bowl of those pickles that are so spicy that just looking at them makes my tongue quiver.
Few of Taj’s entrees will elicit such a powerful response, but for the most part they don’t have to. In fact, if there’s a problem with seasoning it’s that there’s too much; there’s so much ginger and garlic in the shahi korma, for instance, that the beef could actually be lamb and it probably wouldn’t make any difference. But even so, a passion for flavor informs everything that comes out of the kitchen. “That’s good, isn’t it?” the woman asks us. She closes her eyes and smiles, undoubtedly imagining how intense our seekh kabob tastes, its ground turkey so heavily seasoned that it’s the color of rare steak. Other appetizers, such as the vegetable samosa or chicken tikka are less rapturous, but that’s nothing a spoonful of the homemade achar won’t solve. (It’s available by the bottle.)
Order a nonvegetarian entree at Taj and, unless you’ve chosen the shahi korma, a lamb curry, or some ground turkey with peas, you’ll be eating chicken. The recipe for butter chicken is one meant specifically for poultry; it lends an oily, light herb flavor to the boneless meat. But the masala in the kari chicken is good enough that you wish the kitchen would use it elsewhere. When you’re eating the crisp and tender chicken tandoori (available either as a whole or half bird), it’s hard not to think how nice it would be if Taj could find some room in the oven for red meat.
Taj’s vegetarian dishes offer the most variety. Shahi paneer and saag paneer are pungent dishes made with fresh homemade cheese; the former is spiced like typical Indian dishes, but the tomato, spinach, and onion sauce of the latter gets us talking about pasta. The dishes are stewed in their sauces for so long that it’s hard to tell, say, a piece of cauliflower from a hunk of potato. But such prolonged cooking only energizes the spices. The grilled eggplant with onions and tomatoes is reduced to a smoky-hot paste that we treat like a spread and eat with naan.
It’s doubtful that Taj will be sharing much crossover business with its neighbor, Rupperts, one of the most highly regarded and highly priced restaurants in town. The service isn’t necessarily badit’s just not by-the-book. On every visit, we’re treated like surprise guests, and the small staff always seems to be improvising. When my girlfriend orders a glass of wine, the waiter goes behind the bar and pulls out whatever he can find, raising each bottle above his head so that she can make out the label from where she’s sitting. But even amid chaos, the staff always acts burdened. “Man, I’m working tonight,” the cook giggles one night as he brings us out an extra bowl of achar. “It’s nice, though. It’s nice.”
1015 7th St. NW. (202) 783-2300.
I doubt that the woman who calls to offer, “If you ever get out of Arlington, you should try Saigon Inn in Woodley Park,” is a regular reader, but she knows I’m cheap. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, the restaurant has a “4 dishes for $4.50” lunch deal that’s certainly worth knowing about. There’s a list of 14 dishes to pick from (our favorites are the homestyle bean curd and the beef lemon grass), and they arrive together on a platter, so don’t order anything that won’t survive a little mix-and-match. You really get to choose only three entrees, because spring rolls are included in every order whether you want them or not. It’s a generous meal for the price, but what concerns both the reader and me is why those chicken-sausage-and-egg-filled rolls Saigon used to serve were taken off the menu. They were delicious. Perhaps I can find something similar if I ever get back out to Arlington.
Saigon Inn, 2614 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 483-8400.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.