When you walk into Commonwealth Indian restaurant in the Pike & Rose development for the first time and look around, be prepared to reset your expectation meter to high. Banquettes upholstered in tufted gold lamé and rich silk prints line an entrance waiting area beyond the host stand. A lounge area features a flecked granite bar with velveteen bar chairs so comfortable and roomy you could curl up for a nap in one. Some walls are adorned with gold herringbone-patterned textured wallpaper; others shimmer with gold motifs. With this design, the restaurant’s chef and owner, 41-year-old Sunil Bastola, sends a loud and clear message: There’s nothing common about Commonwealth Indian.
In the 100-seat dining room (there are also 12 seats outside), ornate crystal chandeliers, a tray ceiling lined with gold-hued tin tiles, and large teal and lime-green upholstered chairs are luxurious and welcome stand-ins for the bare Edison bulbs, exposed ductwork and plankboard chairs diners have gotten used to. The finery continues with cocktails. The margarita, tastily tangy from tamarind, comes in a cut-glass coupe; the negroni is chilled with a single spherical ice cube, just like at the hippest lounges. (Ask for the delightful little round crackers called papadums that are made with lentil and rice flours and served with two chutneys. Commonwealth serves them with dinner entrées, but they go great with pre-dinner cocktails.)
Bastola is from Nepal, near India’s northern border. He says he didn’t plan to be a chef but that’s what happened. He immigrated to Germantown in 2001 with the intention of becoming a pilot but couldn’t keep up with the costs. He had learned to cook from his mother and grandmother and worked in restaurants at home. To support himself in the States, he started working in Indian restaurants. In one of them, he met Pankaj Sharma. The two teamed up to open Bollywood Bistro in Fairfax in 2009, then another outpost in Great Falls in 2014. (Sharma is not a partner in Commonwealth.)
Bastola also earned an associate degree in advanced culinary arts from Stratford University in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2018, but his cooking at Commonwealth reveals that he already possessed vital requirements for excellence: natural ability and a refined palate. That’s evident in the samosa chips appetizer, Bastola’s riff on the familiar, triangular, potato-stuffed pastries. His version is a stack of four flaky disks stuffed with mashed potato and flecked with carom seeds, which are in the same family as caraway seeds. The chips are delicate, ultra-flaky and rich, and hardly need the two chutneys (date and mint-cilantro) that prettily dot the plate. Nasturtium garnishes add extra flair to the presentation.
For one intriguing appetizer, Bastola hangs yogurt in cheesecloth to expunge water, then forms patties around a dried fig and charred onion filling and sautés them. For another, chicken drumsticks are marinated in yogurt, mint, cilantro and chili peppers and then roasted in a tandoor oven. Their perfume and smokiness intoxicate. Other standout starters are minced chicken or lamb kebabs, a northern Indian specialty. Both are heady with cumin, clove, ginger and coriander, but I prefer the fowl. The cylinder of spiced meat rests atop warm naan (flatbread) with roasted tomato sauce and a salad of diced tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers. I fold it and devour it as a sandwich.
Some appetizers miss the mark. Potato puffs with gold leaf and flavorless black truffle slices are opulent but lackluster. And does the world need a naan pizza with spiced yogurt sauce, mozzarella cheese and chicken? Probably not.
At Indian restaurants, it all comes down to the curries, meant to be ordered in abundance and shared. Are they or are they not so flavorful and complex that you’re driven to sop up every last drop of sauce with torn-off shreds of naan? The answer at Commonwealth is, for the most part, yes. I particularly enjoy two of them. Saag gosht, from northern India’s Punjab region, is cubes of braised lamb (you can have it with chicken or shrimp, too) in a rich spinach sauce loaded with ginger, garlic and warm spices, such as coriander, cardamom and cloves. The other, Chettinad murgh, from the Chettinad region in the south, is cubes of chicken in a yogurt-based sauce accented with turmeric, chili paste, Kashmiri chilies, black pepper and curry leaves. Another winner is yellow crab curry, a nod to the mid-Atlantic’s finest ingredient—lumps of Maryland crabmeat float in a cumin, coconut milk and chili pepper-laced curry yellow from turmeric. The only curry disappointment is Bastola’s butter chicken, made with a tomato cream sauce that’s unpleasantly sweet.
Lamb biryani—cubes of the meat baked to succulence in basmati rice flavored with bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom and saffron—is a satisfying non-curry alternative (or, better yet, spoon your curries over the rice). Don’t pass up side dishes, such as okra sautéed with tomatoes and cumin; creamy lentils with a kick of chili powder; and charred eggplant sautéed with tomatoes, onions and garlic.
Dessert is not Bastola’s strong suit. A chocolate ganache pudding spiced with cardamom and black pepper is so full of liquid it could almost be a drink. Custard apple ice cream and cold vermicelli noodles anointed with rosewater do not make a compelling duo. These are minor blips given the excellence of Bastola’s savory output. Commonwealth Indian, with its lovely atmosphere, attentive—even if a bit inconsistent—service and superlative fare, is a welcome addition to Pike & Rose. I see many regulars in its future.