Restaurant Review: Curry Mantra 2
If you crave the flavors of Mumbai, Curry Mantra 2 serves the real deal.
Just as Americans revere the hamburger as a national culinary icon, the people of the Republic of India recognize a deep-fried batter-coated spicy potato patty, scented with garlic and turmeric and served on a bun, as their symbolic fast food. And, like a superior ground-beef sandwich, a great vada pav—fritter on bread—can be a memorable delight.
“Very good in flavor and texture, with a little sour twist to it. It’s just like the ones I’d buy on my way to school on the streets back home,” says my dining companion, a Mumbai native and Northern Virginia pastry chef. “Mix the coriander and tamarind chutneys together,” she tells me. “Spoon some on top.”
We’re sharing a first meal at Curry Mantra 2, a 50-seat Indian restaurant in Falls Church, which opened in February. In addition to giving the vada pav a thumbs-up, my guest adores the entrée of butter chicken. “Just the right mix of cardamom, tomato and cream and level of tart to sweet,” she says. The dal legume curry is yet another favorite. “Oh, the smell of the spices; the lentils melt in your mouth.”
Even the dining room’s Bollywood-bright red-and-orange color scheme, with glass-tiled lotus-shaped motifs, reminds her of home. “This is so Indian,” she says with a nod of approval.
This glittering little place has two new fans.
As the number in its name may suggest, this is the second location for the expanding Fairfax-based Curry Mantra Group, which recently opened a third restaurant in Vienna and has plans for a fourth in Woodbridge. The owner, Asad Sheikh, has a background in hotel management and roots in vada pav sales. For nearly 30 years, he says, his family has sold 600 to 700 of the sandwiches per day from a stall near a major train station in Mumbai.
Each of Sheikh’s establishments has “unique features,” he tells me later in a telephone interview. The flagship restaurant—located in a strip mall near Fairfax City—has live music. For Mantra 2, he went with a display kitchen, positioning the tandoor oven just past the front entry for curious spectators. (Before you are seated, take a moment to watch as the chef slaps rounds of dough directly onto the oven’s 500-degree clay walls. In less than a minute, out come fluffy discs of naan, the delicious Indian flatbread.)
Every one of Sheikh’s restaurants has a “Seven Wonders” menu page with seven dishes that are served only at that particular location. “That way,” he says, “you will want to go from Curry Mantra to Curry Mantra.”
Unfortunately, the menu is further divided into headings that require too much time to navigate. Looking for a chicken dish? You’ll find two listed under “Seven Wonders,” including an irresistible chicken dhania, with moist chunks of breast meat in a creamy-rich cilantro, mint and fenugreek gravy. The hunt then continues under “Popular Curry Dishes of All Time” (where you’ll find three more chicken options) and the odd grouping of “Must Try Combination of Vegetables and Proteins.”
In another unique move, Sheikh has devoted one menu page to dishes favored by professional restaurant critics who reviewed his original Fairfax location. Apparently, The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema (my former co-worker) likes the Bangalore platter, with the bird in question bathed in a spicy black peppercorn curry and fresh green coconut.
I’ll happily endorse the roasted puréed eggplant with its deep smoky flavor and earthy undertones of curry leaves and mustard and cumin seeds. Also, I admire this kitchen’s mixed vegetable Jaipuri, which mingles golden sautéed onions with crunchy carrots, green beans and cauliflower in a zesty masala spice blend. The latter was one of the eight dishes I enjoyed one afternoon at Mantra 2’s daily lunch buffet—a deal at $12 per person. Service, day or night, is, for the most part, both dutiful and warm.
There are a few disappointments along the way. One evening, a server’s suggestion of lamb cooked on a tawa hot plate brought a bowl of tough, chewy cubed meat and ho-hum green bell peppers to the table. The lack of seasoning in the “Chef’s Special” jhinga saag, a dish of succulent large shrimp and creamed spinach, made me wish I had brought chili peppers in my pocket. Likewise, the sweet chai tea needs more of a herbaceous kick.
But spice-shy is the exception here. You are more likely to experience complex seasoning blends with crushed (rather than ground) spices, which awaken the senses. Yes, there may be inedible cardamom pods on the plate, but picking around them is a worthwhile trade-off for what they offer in flavor and freshness. Up came two in a lamb entrée I appreciated—a kofta curry, comprising minced lamb balls stuffed with a hard-cooked egg, garlic and ginger, smothered in a tomato-based gravy. I’ll be back for more.
Natives of the Republic of India like sugary desserts. If you do, then both the paneer cottage-cheese cake with mango and coconut sauce and the very dense almond-and-cashew ice cream are a perfect way to end a meal.
Curry Mantra 2
1077 West Broad St. (West End Plaza), Falls Church, 703-992-0077, www.currymantra2.com
Lunch: Daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.
Lunch buffet: $11.99
Lunch and dinner: appetizers $5 to $8; entrées $14 to $20
Suggested on weekends
Bar and Cellar
Two imported Indian beers and 30 international wines selected for their spice and fruit flavor notes, which complement Indian cuisine
Free valet parking and on-site parking lot