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Twin bistros in Northern Virginia put a personal spin on Indian cooking

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

Unrated during the pandemic

The siren call of Amazon, specifically the opening of its second headquarters in Northern Virginia, is changing the landscape in ways small and supersize. Legions of interested parties hope to meet the needs of an influx of workers who want places to live, shop, relax and refuel near Arlington. That’s where the e-commerce giant (whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post) plans to complete the 2.1-million-square-foot project by 2025.

From their perch at Taaza Indian Cuisine in Roanoke, several years ago, business partners Anthony Sankar and Premnath Durairaj saw an opportunity to move to a bigger market and extend their brand of Indian hospitality. Friends since they met while working at the Taj Coromandel hotel in Chennai, in southern India, they rolled out Spice Kraft Indian Bistro in Alexandria in 2019, then followed last September with a second location in Arlington.

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No need to buy any tandoors. Clay ovens were already part of the real estate acquired by the entrepreneurs, whose bistros replaced Bombay Curry Company in Del Ray and Delhi Club in Clarendon. Sankar and Durairaj say they were attracted to the family-oriented neighborhoods and the chance to fill some gaps in dining options. As in, no one else nearby is offering curry wraps or chicken tikka sandwiches, among the bistros’ lunchtime offerings, or desserts such as coconut pineapple bread pudding.

The young restaurants share the same menu created by Durairaj, who, unprompted, tells me that he “never followed the way” the Taj instructed him, preferring instead to push the envelope with his Indian cooking and “give it some twist.”

Customers can taste what he means by asking for some grilled shrimp. The most Indian thing about the seafood is the fact it’s cooked in a tandoor. Otherwise, everything dressing up the tender kebab — crushed olives, crumbled feta, a drizzle of balsamic reduction — suggests you’re in a Greek taverna. (Yes, there’s cumin powder in the sauce, but still. And yes, the entree is a score.) “I like sweet and spicy,” says the chef, whose mango- and ginger-glazed chicken backs him up. The fried nuggets of boneless chicken also pulse with spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric) that the chef grinds fresh several times a week. Elsewhere on the menu, grilled salmon gets topped with a slice of charred pineapple, red and zesty with chile paste. What a tease!

Palak chaat, the dish made Peloton-popular by chef Vikram Sunderam at the esteemed Rasika in Washington, is a must at Indian restaurants with aspirations. Durairaj makes a respectable version of the fried spinach appetizer, which he personalizes with juicy pineapple.

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Spice Kraft is a welcome compromise for bubble mates with different views on meat, which is to say, vegetarians and carnivores can go their own ways on the list and both have fun.

The bistro serves one of the biggest, and best, samosas around, their mashed potato centers green and herbal with a mint and cilantro paste. Eating a whole, thick-skinned samosa feels like dinner. Lentil soup is a lighter, but no less luscious, launch. Yellow lentils emphasize the sunny warmth of the dish, which relies on coconut milk as its base and turmeric for shade. (If you forgo the soup, be sure to include a side of yellow lentils, sharpened with fresh ginger and garlic, in your order.) I’ve made meals of just the smoky mashed eggplant, onion and tomato shot through with green chile and coriander, among other enhancers.

Lentil soup is made with yellow lentils, coconut milk and curry leaf. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Mango- and ginger-glazed crispy chicken. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

The grandest meat, on the other hand, is braised lamb shank. Marinated in garam masala and finished with a brown onion gravy, it’s a high-rise of soft red meat paired with mashed potatoes made great and gold with turmeric and mustard seed. Even when served in a carton, the entree looks impressive and tastes ambitious.

The restaurant allows customers to mix and match, making it especially attractive to customization-seeking millennials. A roster of “proteins” — paneer, chicken, salmon, lamb, etc. — is followed by sauce options ranging from korma (onion, nut pastes, turmeric) and chettinad (black pepper and curry leaf) to saag (green with spinach) and vindaloo (warm with chiles). The one thing the meals share is basmati rice.

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Spice Kraft’s lunch bowls are apt to sustain you through the dinner hour. Look at what amounts to a buffet in one day’s platter-size bowl: chunks of salmon in a sunset-colored “homestyle” coconut milk sauce shored up with sunny yellow rice and a scoop of curried chickpeas and other vegetables. A sail of crisp papadum adds to the largesse. The Indian wraps suggest burritos; curried lamb, slightly sour Amul cheese and diced vegetables pack the inside of my choice bundle, wrapped in (fusion alert!) tortillas.

The chef says the abundant portions are partly because buffets, a staple at many Indian restaurants, are frowned upon since the pandemic.

Spice Kraft jumps on the chicken sandwich bandwagon with a ground chicken patty lit with a roll call of Indian spices; a spread coaxed from cilantro, mint and mango powder; lightly pickled vegetables; and mayonnaise tinged with mild Kashmiri chiles. The sesame-seed bun says “America,” but the interior of the whopper places you squarely in India. Alongside the eyeful sits a mouthful of potato straws, dusted with chickpea and rice flours and crisped in the fryer. The delicious heap is whittled down to crumbs between bites of the sandwich.

The 48-seat dining room in Alexandria retains the straightforward look of its predecessor. The 60-seat space in Arlington, facing the Clarendon Metro, is fetching with gold-trimmed blue wainscoting, handsome brown screens and an ornate pressed tin ceiling. Both bistros come with modest patios.

Like the company that inspired them to head for greener pastures, the owners of Spice Kraft say they plan to grow. Their third location, expected later this year, will be in D.C. or Maryland.

Some unsolicited advice from an admirer: Make everyone happy and open a bistro in each.

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Spice Kraft Indian Bistro 2607 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-836-6363. 1135 N. Highland St., Arlington, 703-527-5666. Open for takeout and delivery, indoor and outdoor dining 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (Alexandria) and 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (Arlington). Prices: lunch-only bowls and wraps $9 to $13; appetizers $4 to $7, entrees $13 to $24. Delivery via DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats, or through the Arlington restaurant (within a 5-mile radius). Accessibility: The Alexandria foyer is tight; double doors and/or steps in Arlington make wheelchair maneuvers difficult.

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