- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Capitol Hill Tandoor & Grill is one of several delightful new restaurants on Capitol Hill’s Barracks Row, just south of Eastern Market. This 4-month-old Indian-Pakistani restaurant is a real bang for the buck, offering great food at reasonable prices and very friendly service.

The space is nice — large with exposed brick on two walls — but overall the decor could use a face-lift.

The restaurant, says co-owner Amir Ehsan, offers Indian delicacies both from the mostly vegetarian and very spicy southern regions to the meatier and less spicy north, whose cuisine carries a lot of common traits with Pakistani food.

For a nice selection of appetizers, we tried the “chef’s special assorted,” which includes vegetables samosas (a type of dumpling), vegetable pakoras (fritters), chicken tikka and “seekh -e-sikander” (minced lamb with herbs).

The fried dishes were tasty, but a bit on the dry side. This was nicely remedied, however, by a couple of dipping sauces — one slightly sweet, featuring tamarind, the other spicy with fresh mint.

The minced lamb is nicely seasoned, but the real highlight is the tender and juicy chicken tikka, which gets its great consistency and flavor from being marinated in yogurt, ginger, cloves, chili powder, coriander and lemon juice and then quickly baked in a tandoor oven.

As the eatery’s name indicates, many dishes are cooked in a tandoor clay oven, heated with wood or charcoal, that reaches such high temperatures that it can cook a small chicken in about 10 minutes. This speedy cooking helps seal juices inside the chicken, meat and fish, while forming a nice crispy surface.

In most of the menu descriptions, the complicated, scrumptious seasoning is referred to only as “spices.” These include, but are not limited to, cumin, coriander, mint, cloves, cardamom, bay leaves, various chilies, turmeric, coconut, fennel seeds, saffron, sesame seeds, ginger, paprika, black pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon.

We, frankly, were often unable to decipher which spices were featured in which dishes. But does it really matter as long as the food is delicious?

We also ordered an assortment of bread, including the fluffy nan and crispy and spicy, crisp papadum — all of it very good and filling. But we kept going.

Next up was an entree of assorted tandoor-grilled meat, chicken and fish. As with the appetizers, the chicken was the highlight, while the other items were a bit dry.

This was certainly not the case with the jheenga malai, a jumbo-shrimp dish, which we crowned as the clear culinary winner of the evening. The shrimp is marinated overnight in a sour-cream sauce with white pepper, coconut milk and curry leaf and then cooked in that same sauce. Perfection.

Each main course comes with a generous helping of delicious basmati rice, some of it flavored with saffron.

The vegetarian dishes are listed on the menu under “vegetable delights,” and they couldn’t be labeled more accurately. While other countries use vegetables as garnishes or side dishes, Indian cuisine expertly prepares main dishes with lentils, chickpeas, spinach, potatoes and eggplant. They are filling and delicious.

The dal makhani, lentils cooked in a creamy sauce, may not look that appetizing (basically a brown gruel) but definitely should not be missed. Neither should the baingan bharta, baked eggplant cooked with onions, tomatoes and topped with freshly shredded ginger.

The dessert menu is very short and sweet and includes tasty homemade ice cream — mango or pistachio. The melt-in-your-mouth rice pudding is rich and creamy and sprinkled with cardamom, sugar and crushed pistachios.

The restaurant has a lengthy bar menu, but no alcoholic drink possibly could compete with mango lassi, a sweet yogurt drink with mango pulp. It’s so good, it should come with an addiction warning label. On a cold winter evening, the masala tea, flavored with cardamom is soothing.

The service at Capitol Hill Tandoor & Grill is swift and attentive. The space is surprisingly roomy and comfortable, and the attractive brick walls are adorned with predictable, but pretty over-sized, framed photos of Indian attractions such as the Taj Mahal.

But the attractiveness ends there. The high, white ceilings with their boring spot-lights hardly makes for a cozy setting. The wall-sized window, facing the street, looks bare. The tables look scattered rather than carefully placed.

The finishing decor touches aren’t there yet. But the restaurant is still in its infancy and with its good food and friendly service it should have a good chance to mature and grow old with grace.

RESTAURANT: Capitol Hill Tandoor & Grill, 419 Eighth St. SE; 202/547-3233

HOURS:11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and to 11 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.

PRICES: Starters $2.99 to $8.95; main courses $5.95 to $16.95; desserts $2.50 to $2.99

CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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