- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Bethesda’s restaurant row — Cordell Avenue — recently got a welcome addition when Passage to India opened its bejeweled doors.

Everything — walls, doors and menus — in Passage to India is tastefully adorned with Indian antiques, including framed photographs of rajahs, maps of India before the British takeover and intricately wood-carved window shutters from faraway palaces.

While the decor is lovely, the real gems are on the menu. Chef and owner Sudhir Seth, who opened the restaurant a little more than a year ago, thought it time to go beyond the usual tandoori and tikka masalas and decided to include such exotic, tasty treats as salli boti jardaloo, a lamb stew with apricots and straw potatoes. It’s a dish that mixes the flavors of the Middle East with those of India.

“You won’t find that anywhere else,” he says. “In fact, 80 percent of what’s on the menu, you won’t find at other Indian restaurants in this area.”

But due to popular demand, Mr. Seth — thankfully — included a chicken tikka appetizer. It is superb; the tenderest ever. Also on the appetizer menu is the delicious samosa chaat, a pyramid-shaped pastry with chickpeas and yogurt sauce. The seekh kebab, seasoned and prepared perfectly, too, is a great choice.

The only soup on the menu, mulligatawny, a yellow lentil soup, is silky smooth and nicely seasoned with lemon; a slice of lemon actually is left floating in the soup. It comes with nan, served fresh from the bread oven. Another tasty bread is the missi roti, which is made with chickpea flour and herbs and has quite a kick to it.

The menu lists about 35 main courses, including several seafood and vegetarian choices. The cabbage and bean stir-fry with mustard seeds we ordered didn’t sound too exciting, but we were pleasantly surprised. The vegetables were crisp and the slight coconut flavor was unexpected, but very tasty.

The goat curry, which featured goat on the bone stewed with garlic, onion and herbs, was great, except there was too much bone and too little of the very tender and nicely seasoned meat.

Another favorite was the malai chingri, giant shrimp in a light coconut sauce with cloves, ginger and cinnamon. What a perfect flavor combination.

The general level of spiciness is medium, but can easily be turned up at the request of guests, Mr. Seth says.

All entrees are served with a moderate portion of rice, which sits on a large white plate. All entree portions are moderately sized and served in copper bowls lined with stainless steel. The presentation is just as delightful as the food itself.

After-dinner treats include the tasty kulfi, or frozen reduced milk served with orange sauce, and jam-e-gul, milk dumplings in rose-flavored syrup. The rice pudding too is a nice choice.

The wine list is short and mediocre as is the selection of beer. But this is really the only area where Passage could stand some improving.

The service is quick and helpful, and the restaurant stayed open an extra 30 to 45 minutes to accommodate late-arriving guests. But don’t expect any smiles or chattiness from the waiters, whose demeanor match their clothes — they’re conservatively dressed in black pants, shirts, vests and bow ties.

This delightful restaurant, which comfortably seats up to 62 guests, is a bit of a culinary experiment, Mr. Seth says. He would like to continue introducing Americans to unusual, often unknown Indian cuisine.

“But I’m a bit apprehensive,” he says. “Not having a lot of the run-of-the-mill stuff, you never know how customers will respond.”

We hope well, because no one should pass on Passage to India.

RESTAURANT: Passage to India, 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301/656-3373; www.passagetoindia.info

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Starters $3.95 to $8.25; main courses (dinner) $8.95 to $18.95; main courses (lunch) $6.95 to $9.95; desserts $4.50 to $5.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Metered street parking and parking garages

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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