Martial Foodie's Joy of Fine Dining Guide: PASSAGE TO INDIA, Journey to Bethesda's Curry Palace

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Passage to India in Bethesda, Maryland whisks your taste buds to the four corners of Subcontinent: 1. Garlic Naan; 2. Goat Curry; 3. Baby Eggplant Curry; 4. Goat Biryani; 5. Salli Boti Jardaloo; 6. Mango Shreekhand.

“Joy of Fine Dining Guide” is Martial Foodie‘s in-depth reviews of very favorite restaurants around the DC area and the nation in order to help diners maximize their culinary experiences.

What makes it fine:  Critically-acclaimed Chef/Owner Sudhir Seth and Chef Mahipal Negi conduct harmonious symphony of spices in a diverse array of divine curries, carefully arranged into the Sub-Continent’s four corners (West, East, North, and South).  Along with pastry-like tandoori breads baked to order and fun desserts, the refinement and dedication to classical Indian cuisine can be appreciated in each curry concoction—distinct and well-defined from one another.

Cost: $8.95-$38.85 for lunch, $13.95-$38.85 for weekend brunch/dinner (pre-tax/tip/alcohol per person).

The Occasion: Those seeking fine multi-regional traditional Indian cuisine in elegant settings for a peaceful, elegant lunch or a reasonably-priced celebration dinner should journey to Passage to India.  Whether you want to try Indian cuisine for the first time or a curry connoisseur, Passage to India prepares well-known dishes and rare finds with equal finesse.  My dining companion and I have experienced dozens of South Asian restaurants across the U.S. and London, and without a doubt, Passage to India’s curries are world-class—spicy or mild each is fresh and loaded with flavor.

Recommended Dishes: While Passage to India makes many outstanding curries, our very favorites include the Goat Curry, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Dum Ka Murgh (Chicken Korma) from the North, Baingan Mirch Ka Salan (Baby Eggplant) from the South, and Salli Boti Jardaloo (Lamb with Apricots) from the West.  The two chicken curries are also available as part of the lunch special (Chicken Tikka Masala also for brunch).  Also, don’t miss out on the Goat Biryani (not listed in the regular dinner or lunch menu)!

The perfect pairing is any combination of the Goat Curry, Baby Eggplant, and Goat Biryani.  Perhaps the top dish at Passage to India is either Goat entrée.  A multitude of flavors are packed into d the goat meat’s diverse textures—tender, chewy, firm, gelatinous, smooth—from the different cuts of bone-on meat, tendons, and marrow.  In the case for the Goat Curry, it swims in an exciting blend of cinnamon, clove, ginger, garlic, and tomato for a block party in a copper bowl!  A great complement is the whole Baby Eggplant with Jalapeños in a sesame-peanut curry.  The nuttiness, creaminess, and light chili tickle of the throat provides a thicker, lighter-hued foil for the goat—or substantial stand-alone entrée for a vegan or vegetarian.

What makes Passage to India stand out among the world’s top Indian restaurants is their Rice Pulao, a moist basmati variety steamed to the ideal plumpness without being over-hydrated.  It cannot be overstated that the rice is not seasoned, providing the perfect balance for any curry—spicy, savory, sweet, or tart—without requiring big gulps of water at the end of the meal.  In contrast to its peers, Passage to India’s rice is more eye-catching as it is studded with peas, cashews, and golden raisins for bright, fuller bodied, and subtly sweet accents.  Plus, the rice is provided with any entrée for lunch, brunch, or dinner along with a nice combination slaw, a medley of cabbage, green lettuce, bell peppers, and wedge of lemon to soften up the cabbage and blend everything together.

Not to missed is the Goat Biryani, which is not listed on the general dinner menu but can be requested.  Similar to the Goat Curry in its deep flavor and diverse textures, the Goat Biryani is also abundant and features Passage to India’s fantastic rice in an even larger copper bowl.  The biryani is moist, flavorful rice blended with goat curry and garnished with fried shallots, ginger, coriander leaves, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  Not only is the dish full of delicious meat, the goat’s flavors along with the garnishes adds depth for the rice and is refreshingly cooled by a side of herby cucumber raita.

Passage to India's lunch special features a colorful bounty of flavors to charge up the taste buds: 1. Mulligatwany; 2. Black Lentils; 3. Chicken Tikka Masala; 4. Chicken Korma; 5. Lamb Korma; 6. Kheer with Masala Tea.

Another great duo is the Chicken Tikka Masala and Chicken Korma.  The former features chicken that has been gently charred in the tandoori oven then finished in a tomato- and onion-based curry with fenugreek to give it a gently sweet and tart flavor.  The latter curry is simmered in a nutty and creamy gravy of almonds and cardamom.  The light heat from the Tikka Masala matches well with the mildness of the Korma.  True to maximizing flavors of the chicken, Chefs Seth and Negi use dark meat, which stands up nicely to the yogurt marinating, boiling, and simmering better than the more popular breast meat.  For the lamb lovers, the Salli Boti Jardaloo is a curry that extracts sweetness from apricots—an ode to the Middle Eastern influences in Indian cuisine.  Topping of the dish are crisp straw potatoes for a textural contrast.

Among the many array of breads, the Garlic Naan is tops—crisp and pastry like on the outside, pillowy soft on the inside, and sprinkled generously with aromatic garlic.  For dinner, nicely crunchy and spiced Pappadams (think lentil-based corn tortillas with the same crunch but without the oiliness) are provided as a snack to start with a trio of refined chutneys: sweet and herby tamarind, spicy and creamy tomato, and cool mint yogurt.  For lunch and brunch, Passage to India provides Black Lentils—peerless in its homey, savory, and creamy texture.  The lunch special entices us to add their Mulligatwany, a bright soup of yellow lentils and lemon with a medium thickness perfect to whet the appetite, especially on a cold day or when getting over a cold.

To conclude the meal, Chefs Seth and Negi’s deft with milk shines in their desserts.  While Kheer is a common staple of Indian cuisine, Passage to India’s rice pudding is truly exemplary: fragrant with slightly floral aroma of simmered milk contrasted by a zing of cardamom, crushed pistachio, golden raisins, and almond slivers for a melange of colors and textures.  In the hotter months, the Mango Shreekhand is a refreshing choice: nutmeg-powered yogurt with sliced tender mangoes and mint!  Pairing nicely with any of the desserts is the Masala Tea (get it without milk to let fully enjoy the milk flavors of the dessert) brings more spice flavors as well as encouraging a feeling of emotional and digestive ease.

What to Avoid: Lacking the blisteringly hot temperature oven to make ideal outside char, Passage to India’s kabobs are worth passing—stick to the incredible curries instead!

Special Tips: Ask for your bread fresh out of the oven whenever it is ready to enjoy it in its steaming-hot, crisp-tender glory.  When ordering a lunch special, add their signature Mulligatwany and/or Rice Pudding for only $1.50 each.  They also offer a 3-course $15.95 Maharaja Brunch on the weekends from 11:30-2:30pm.

Passage to India is located 4931 Cordell Avenue & Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, Maryland (301-656-3373).  For more information, click here.

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