June 12, 2017
The District has long been home to some of the most forward-thinking Indian cuisine you could hope to find. By constantly tinkering with classic dishes, modern bistros like Rasika and Indique have built their formidable reputations as much on creativity and innovation as they have on quality of food. While these restaurants have rightfully earned their share of accolades, there is something to be said for honoring tradition – especially when it’s done properly. Bethesda’s elegant Passage to India is a throwback in some ways: the cooking, like the antique framed pictures on its walls, evoke India’s rich history and cultural traditions. Its very name is borrowed from the classic E.M. Forster novel, written nearly a century ago.
Chef and co-owner Sudhir Seth is not interested in reinventing the wheel. Instead, his goal is to present masterful versions of traditional favorites from all regions of India, and perhaps, to take westerners on a culinary tour of his home subcontinent. All too often, Americans assume that Indian food is more or less consistent across the vast country. In fairness, the menus of most of America’s Indian restaurants tend to lump all dishes together regardless of their region of origin. But a meal at Passage to India can be more of an educational experience; the extensive menu is divided into four regions, one for each of the cardinal directions. Brief blurbs on each page provide enlightening descriptions of each region’s main culinary tendencies. Many Americans will be surprised to learn that, for example, the cuisine of western India bears some Portuguese influence, thanks to a long history of colonization.
Seth, a native of New Delhi, in the north of India, is a more than capable tour guide. He has done his own share of traveling, with previous professional stints in Dubai, Chicago and New York City, before settling in D.C. He has long since mastered the old standards. More conservative eaters will be delighted with an exceptionally creamy and complex Chicken Tikka Masala ($16.95) and an array of smoky Tandoori offerings (chicken, scallops and vegetables; ranging from ($12.95 to $16.95). But half the fun at Passage to India is discovering hearty new favorites. A complex lamb and apricot stew, called Salli Botti Jardaloo ($17.95) – something of a hyrbrid between Indian and Persian cuisine – is a highlight of the Eastern India section of the menu.
The western India section is rich with seafood conctions, like the Karwari Prawn Curry ($18.95), flavored with anise and fennel. The menu contains a wide variety of vegan offerings, like the roasted eggplant or Baingan Bharta ($14.95), a specialty from northern India, an area that often incorporates eggplant into its cooking.
The kitchen never slacks on the smaller ticket items: small bowls of house made pickles ($4.95) are exceptionally flavorful, either on rice or just by themselves. Even the house-baked nan ($2.95), often a throwaway at lesser Indian restaurants, is lush and pillowy.
If the quality of an Indian restaurant is proportional to the number of patrons who are actually from India, then Passage to India earns high marks. Both during the evening and on weekend mornings, when Indian food would not occur to many westerners as an option, tables are largely full with a diverse range of patrons. Friendly servers are happy to offer recommendations, often from their own home regions.
The dining room’s most salient feature is an ornately latticed main door, which seems to offer a passage out of the D.C. suburbs and into another continent. Rarely are restaurants so aptly named. Many Indian restaurants are content to serve up the same standard issue curries, and a handful of outliers seek to create something new and different. But as Passage to India approaches its fifteenth birthday, Seth and his team aspire to create a reverent guided tour through their homeland – minus the long and costly trip out of Dulles.