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It seemed a hope beyond comprehension for D.C. to spawn two quality Indian outlets on the same street within a matter of months. I mean, we already had the instant-hit Masala Art in Tenleytown. Could Washingtonians find another one just a few blocks north on Wisconsin at Cafe of India?
Alas, Cafe of India, despite its elegant tan dining room with tables set with matching cloths (and paper placemats!), is not yet ready to enter the rarefied realm of Masala Art, although it does apparently want to compete with the town’s best curry makers. Case in point: Cafe of India offers a “crackling spinach” appetizer with fried leaves, slices of avocado, and date chutney. It’s obviously a take on Rasika‘s now iconic palak chaat.
The new dish does dwarf Rasika’s starter in one aspect: It’s a far larger serving than chef Vikram Sunderam’s polite bowl of crispy spinach, which always vanishes before your appetite for it does. But the version at Cafe of India suffers from an overly sweet date chutney, which is applied so thickly that it moves the appetizer advertised as “crackling” far closer to the mushy category.
The fatty avocado keeps the starter grounded, but the dish could benefit from more sour and spice flavors to help provide balance and prevent the appetizer from floating away on a cloud of sweetness.
The kitchen shows promise in other areas of the menu, particularly its take on saag paneer, which is rich and aromatic and features a wonderfully firm cheese. Cafe of India also turns out a respectably fiery chicken makhani(though a little oily) and a lamb curry (whose heat is expertly undercut with the slightest hint of sweet spice). One weak spot, at present, is the operation’s garlic naan, which arrives with virtually raw minced garlic, making for a pungent (and slightly astringent) bite. Take a look for yourself: