Indicating India
INDIQUE
[from February 2003 issue]


By now, you are probably familiar with such food words as samosa, kulfi, rogan josh and chutney. And you can quickly pinpoint India as their culinary source. But don't think that Indian food has become something of a cliché around town. Under the guidance of such masters as Heritage India, Bombay Palace and Bombay Club restaurants, we've come to expect something exemplary and food fit for the Maharajah from local tandoori ovens.

Joining these ranks--or at least, almost there--is the new Indique ("Unique Indian Flavors"), a dressy stepchild of the suburbs' Bombay Bistro restaurants (Rockville and Fairfax). Sleek and contemporary and with walls almost bare of the usual Indian trappings, this two-story Cleveland Park newcomer sets the scene with minimal décor that nonetheless echoes India, and it places its glassed-in tandoori ovens in the main entranceway--a subtle reminder to people as they walk in that whatever else they've come for, they really have come to feast.

With measured courtesy, the maître d' leads you upstairs to the dining room--and you'll quickly appreciate how much work the waiters take on, for they must scurry up and downstairs loaded with full or empty trays, depending on which direction they're headed. Surprisingly, the upstairs really holds relatively few tables, for the designer has carved out a central "well" in the floor space opening onto the area below. This design, plus the multiple windows, give the room a sense of airiness, but it also cuts down on seating.

It's now Sunday early afternoon, and surprisingly, considering the hour, the dining room is a busy place. Word gets around quickly in town, and when the word is "good," foodies can expect a crowd. But besides the stair-climbing, it's hard to figure out why service lags slightly. Considering that the lunch menu is very abbreviated, it seems the kitchen staff might have extra time on its hands.

Starting with the "First Taste" section, a tapas-like assortment, presumably meant for sharing, this contains at least one familiar dish: the chaat papri, a snack offering of potatoes, chick peas, and bread crisps and, usually, a drizzle of sweet tamarind sauce and yogurt. But the Gujarati specialty of steamed lentil cakes, or dhokla, beckoned. Unremarkable--actually, I thought these were made of rice--they don't rank as a taste thrill, but certainly are satisfyingly filling. Of special interest, however, is the accompanying tray of three seasonings: a superb hot-sour mango chutney, a coriander seasoning, and a sweet tamarind sauce.

As for luncheon entrées, "Are these all?," I naively asked the waiter. Your choices are limited to seven dishes, which include a kebab, a fish curry, two vegetarian dishes, and a lamb curry called Lamb Niligiri Korma. A mild dish with puréed spinach stirred with cubed lamb, this stirs up little excitement compared to its firebrand cousin, lamb vindaloo, which here pays proper homage to the chili-vinegar components that distinguish a Goan vindaloo. Indeed, on any follow-up visit I would not hesitate to sidestep the lunchtime lamb in favor of the saffron Malai Chicken or Tamilnad Fish Curry.

All entrée dishes, served in small portions in arty ceramic bowls, come with a salad or soup, rice, dal and bread. The soup--at least on this occasion, a truly tart South Indian rasam-style liquid--will probably be Indian-style, as salads are not much of an Indian thing. Patrons are not given the option to order other breads, but must be satisfied with a pie-wedge slice of tandoori naan, not enough really to get you through the meal.

As for desserts, the list includes an East-Meets-West mix of rice pudding, mango-cheese flan, and the Bombay favorite, Shreekandh. But little here sounds tempting enough to leap off the diet bandwagon.

Perhaps in the end, Indique really shines at night, when the menu is far more extensive, and gives patrons the chance to order larger portions and assorted breads and accompaniments. If you are familiar with either Bombay Bistro restaurant, you'll probably welcome its newest effort in DC. If not, you'll find Indique offers a contemporary twist on the familiar Subcontinent theme.

Indique, 3512-14 Conn. Ave.; tel., 244-6600. Hours: Lunch, 12noon-3pm, daily; Dinner, 5:30-10:30pm, Sun.-Thu., to 11pm, Fri. & Sat. Dinner entrée price range: $12-$19.


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