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To determine the adequacy of an Indian restaurant it’s necessary to the read the face of a diner who has ordered boldly. Typically, the masochists who put their bodies to the test with fiery Indian dishes are a cocky but subdued breed, unwilling to concede that a powerful curry or a mean masala could ruffle their feathers.
I have one such unflappable friend, a James Bond type of hedonist who pretty much defines “dapper,” stands roughly 6-foot-8, though he seems taller, and possesses a thirst for adventure I suspect he won’t satisfy without hitching a ride on the space shuttle.
The vindaloo at White Tiger is unforgiving; it’s a dish of potatoes and either chicken, beef, or lamb moistened by a paste so silly with crushed peppers it feels like Ben-Gay if you touch it to your skin. A few bites into his meal, Bond likens the vindaloo to “Gerber.” He speaks too soon, of course, as anyone familiar with the creeping quality of hot Indian spices could probably guess. “This does have a nice slow burn to it,” Bond admits a moment later, as the cayenne begins to cripple the upper half of his body.
Bond’s poise is admirable through the entire ordeal, though by dinner’s end he is soundly beaten. He looks calm, but there’s urgency in his voice when he asks if he can finish my excess raita, a soothing blend of yogurt, tomatoes, and cucumbers that he applies to his aching tongue as if it were aloe cream.
That danger could lurk in any bite is part of what makes Indian cuisine such a rush, but it’s in the more subtle flavors of the tempered spices that the real pleasures lie. White Tiger serves northern Indian cuisine, a style less reliant on potatoes and rice than its southern counterpart. The restaurant’s best dishes are luscious stews, lightly fried chicken and fish, and meats that are soaked in marinades and then charbroiled crispy in a clay oven.
At first glance, White Tiger is “classy” in a way that you’d expect a restaurant near Capitol Hill to be; the dim lighting and starched, white tablecloths suggest a setting for power meals. But once you settle in, the restaurant’s eccentricities take hold. Food is served on copper-colored metal plates with ridges that aid in piling heaps of goods onto your fork. Getting a table is never a problem, but you’ll always have company surrounding you, speaking at a level just soft enough that the moans of Indian music are never drowned out. A man in a turban is always stationed at a table by the door, flashing smiles at incoming customers and extending his hand to those on the way out.
Don’t expect doughy grease blobs if you order the deep-fried appetizers. White Tiger uses a peppery chickpea flour to coat julienne chicken, crisp veggies, and a seafood mixture. The product in each case is a surprising, practically weightless fritter. The aloo vale samose, a mixture of peas and potatoes stuffed in pastry dough, is similarly light despite its trip through a pool of oil.
White Tiger’s vegetable dishes provide a tour of the idiosyncrasies of Indian spices. Both the chana masala, chickpeas flavored with roasted cumin, and the chaunki bhindi, a seasonal dish of okra stewed with turmeric, cumin, fennel, and onions, are powerful but hardly painful. The spices rip through your sinuses and then seem to settle in your chest. The dal maharani is breezier but still potent, a therapeutic amount of ginger providing the kick.
The vegetables are cooked in spice-riddled juices, making them great sites for dipping. Not that the breads need it. The naan here is wonderful, in particular a house specialty that’s cooked with minced lamb, garlic, and cracked peppers. There’s a kulcha speckled with garlic butter-sauteed onion that I can’t help fantasizing about as a pizza crust. Ask the waiter to keep the roti or puri coming and you won’t much care if you ever order anything of real substance.
I don’t, however, suggest skipping out on the entrees. The meat here is all supremely tender, a result of long baths in a variety of marinades and the skill of the cook manning the tandoor oven. Noorani makes a loud entrance on a piping hot skillet, and you can smell the garlic and almond paste in the air as the waiter carefully places the chunks of chicken and onion on your plate. Both the lamb chops and the grilled shrimp come on a skewer, the former adorned simply with an array of tomatoes, onions, and peppers and the latter with a rich, buttery sauce. An unlimited supply of saffron-flavored rice (called pulau) is included with every tandoori order. It’s a distinctive dish on its own, but it’s also surprisingly versatile, whether absorbing what oozes from the moist ground lamb or providing a soft bed for the lemon-kissed salmon.
Aside from the vindaloo, which I’ll admit is satisfying in its own way, sort of like having an internal massage, nothing at White Tiger gives us anything but pure pleasure.
“I don’t want them to take any of this away,” my friend gushes on one night after telling the waiter for the second time that we aren’t finished, even though we’re both deliriously full. When he finally comes and clears the table, I make him pause for another second. There’s a bowl with some delectably sharp mint sauce left in it. I dip my finger in for one last taste.
White Tiger, 301 Massachusetts Ave. NE. (202) 546-5900.
Southern Indian cuisine is notable for giving the bland some bite; it generally eschews meat and just about everything else in favor of starch, so much so that you could eat from Udupi Palace’s vegetarian menu for weeks and hardly ever find any green on your plate. Udupi runs several low-priced specials at noon. I’m partial to a combo meal of fried lentil donuts called mehdu vada and the rava masala dosai, a porous, pizza-size wheat and lentil crepe studded with chilies and stuffed with onions and grilled potatoes. Don’t leave without stopping by the adjoining espresso bar/sweets counter; it’s remarkable what can be devised from a little milk and sugar.
Udupi Palace, 1329 University Blvd. E., Langley Park. (301) 434-1531.Brett Anderson
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