This is a Test

Do Spice Xing and Angeethi make the grade?

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Take out a pen. This is a quiz. You’ll be deciding which of two new Indian restaurants is more your style. Both are outposts of existing places: Spice Xing (pronounced “crossing”) in Rockville Town Square is the offspring of Passage to India, a longtime star in Bethesda. Angeethi on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda has two sister restaurants with the same name in Herndon and Leesburg.

You can get a good meal at either new place and, for the most part, the service at both restaurants is pleasant and professional. But the settings, menus and dining experiences are very different. 

So for each category, place an “S” next to the description of Spice Xing if it’s more to your liking or an “A” next to Angeethi, if it’s more your thing. Remember, only one letter for each category. Then tally up your choices to see which restaurant to try.

I prefer dining in:

_____An attractive, contemporary setting. Spice Xing occupies a sleeker space than its prices would suggest. A gold-beaded wishing tree spreads its mosaic limbs on a deep turquoise wall, photographs of spices liven up the bar area and soft-colored silk sails swoop across the ceiling. This is a pretty restaurant.

OR

_____A place with a more down-home feel. Like many neighborhood ethnic eateries, Angeethi is rather bare bones. The site of the short-lived Rarely Legal has been touched up with some gilt-framed pictures of Indian women, sheer red curtains and piped-in Indian muzak, but it’s basically plain and simple.

I like to drink:

_____Imaginative cocktails and choose from an extensive wine and beer list. Ooh La La. That’s the name of one of Spice Xing’s signature cocktails—a lovely mixture of ginger schnapps, champagne and cherry brandy. The lychee mojito is a fruity, not-too-sweet (and not very alcoholic) concoction of citrus rum, mint leaves and lychee juice. Martini drinkers have a choice of eight varieties (pomegranate, sour apple and lemon drop among them), and 27 wines are available by the glass along with 10 types of beers. And yes, the restaurant has a happy hour.

OR

_____A Kingfisher, a glass of merlot or a mango lassi. Maybe tamarind margaritas aren’t your thing. Angeethi offers a handful of beers, glasses and carafes of three house reds and three house whites, and a modest but sufficient list of bottles at $30 or less.

I’d rather select from a menu that has:

_____Dishes from all over India, including some adventurous combinations inspired by foreign cultures. Like Passage to India, Spice Xing serves dishes from various regions of India. In honor of its name, however, dishes with an asterisk are identified as being “inspired by other cultures.” They showcase the culinary influences other countries had on India during periods of domination or trade. For example, salli boti jardaloo is a lamb stew made with dried apricots, a fruit introduced by the Persians.

For those interested in culinary history, however, the menu’s explanations aren’t too detailed, making the “spice crossing” concept somewhat elusive. What was the cultural inspiration behind pao, the Bombay street food, for instance? (Pao, meaning “bread” in Portuguese, is made with yeast rolls baked in an oven; hundreds of years ago, Indians mostly made unleavened flatbreads on an iron griddle, chef Sudhir Seth later explains.)

As for taste, the tawa scallops and balchao shrimp had nice, spicy kicks, and I particularly liked the pao kheema, slider-sized rolls eaten with spiced ground lamb. But not all the culinary influences were for the best. The khurmi naan, a spin-off of pizza, was spread with what appeared to be ketchup, a sweet and cloying covering that didn’t befit the Indian bread. Roast chicken was covered in dowdy, brown gravy, and a liquidy pea-and-corn gratin (“a vegetarian delight from the British Empire”) reminded me of a Campbell’s cream-of soup.

The best dish I sampled at Spice Xing wasn’t followed by an asterisk: It was malbari chicken, a curry dish from the southern part of India. The large chunks of chicken were bathed in a creamy golden sauce, with just the right balance of curry and coconut.

OR

_____Familiar Indian fare. Angeethi’s menu goes on and on, with many variations of dishes predominantly from northern India. That means pakoras, samosas, paneer, biryanis and items cooked in a tandoor oven.

Angeethi has many of these bright and vibrant dishes down pat. One of the best is the popular palak paneer, cubes of homemade farmer’s cheese simmered in soothing spiced spinach. The restaurant also offers balti entrees, which are curries served in little bucket-like copper pots. I’d go back in a minute for the daal maharani balti, black lentils and kidney beans served in a thick and flavor-packed sauce. Of the offerings on  the mixed tandoori grill, the lamb chop and lamb shish kebab were the char-broiled winners; salmon tandoori is not the restaurant’s forte. It was overcooked and didn’t seem terribly fresh. The fried appetizers were good, albeit fairly standard.

When it comes to Indian buffets, I’m more concerned about:

_____Price. At $7.95, Spice Xing’s lunch buffet is a fabulous deal, with salads, soup, lemon and basmati rice, plus several vegetable and meat dishes set up in chafing dishes in the bar area. It’s a decent spread, but I wasn’t wowed. Pools of oil on the sauce surfaces of the chicken korma and lamb roganjosh were a turnoff, even though the meat was tender enough to forgo a knife. The vegetable options were just so-so, in need of a jolt from one of the several chutneys.

OR   

______Selection and quality. The only problem with Angeethi’s $10.99 lunch buffet is that there are so many terrific-tasting dishes that you’re bound to get full before trying them all. The day I visited, the buffet offered six different appetizers, including soup, 13 entrees, fresh fruit and two desserts. From what I could plow through, the butter chicken was melt-in-your-mouth; the chicken jalfrezi was moist and flavorful; the goat curry was worth a second piece; and vegetable dishes with zucchini or potatoes were cooked carefully so as not to turn mushy. I could have easily made a meal of lemon rice and matar paneer—peas and creamy chunks of farmer’s cheese in a thick and soothing sauce. Ditto for a dish called chooley bhathura—potato cakes on a bed of spicy chickpeas.

When it comes to dessert, I:

_____Always want a choice of something sweet to end the meal. Spice Xing has an extensive selection, including an orange-flavored crème caramel and a slice of fresh pineapple marinated in ginger and lime and grilled in the tandoor oven. Surprisingly, these desserts weren’t as good as they sounded. But gulab jamun, milk dumplings in rose-flavored syrup with scoops of cardamom ice cream, was divine.

OR

_____Usually pass, especially after a big meal. You won’t be missing much at Angeethi, which has only a few desserts. Of the three I tried (gulab jamun on the buffet; carrot pudding and rice pudding at dinner), none was worth having to undo the top pants button.

So how did I score on the quiz? It was a close call, but I guess I’m a traditionalist, preferring a casual neighborhood place that serves up full-flavored familiar dishes. I’m looking forward to finishing where I left off at Angeethi’s fabulous buffet. But when I want a lychee mojito and some pao kheema, you know where I’ll be.

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