It’s definitely nowhere near your average Indian restaurant. Washington, DC’s Karma Modern Indian is one of DC’s newest fine dining establishments, which just happens to emphasize the flavors of India and South Asia as it plates craveable, edible works of art. It somehow manages to pull off an understated opulence that shatters expectation.
OK, so an aside here. The CD is back! Yes, I’ve taken some time away from the blog, but I haven’t stopped collecting great food and culture stories to share with you. Sometimes, life just intervenes. And in my case, life involved major life decisions: relocation and career. Sometimes, home calls, and I’m happy to report that I’m back in the Washington, DC area to share more stories from DC’s underrated international culinary scene.
Back to the experience at hand. I had the opportunity to dine at this new hot spot with friends several weeks ago*. While the DC area (and northern Virginia, in particular) has some fantastic Indian restaurants, Penn Quarter (and Foggy Bottom/Golden Triangle)’s Rasika has long been the only major standout Indian restaurant in a fine dining scene.
It’s hard not to draw a comparison between Rasika and Karma Modern Indian in such an open sector. Both restaurants offer ‘Indian with a twist’ – innovative dishes that re-imagine Indian cuisine and high-quality ingredients. But walk inside Karma and you might be confused.
The visual queues we’re used to seeing in Indian restaurants (warm colors, perhaps red or saffron-colored walls, ornate decor – some bronze and gold for sure) are missing. An open kitchen, striking blue tile contrasting with clean whites and grays, a sleek bar and minimalist pendant chandeliers catch the eye. Tucked in a corner, the private dining room features a gorgeous geometric tapestry – the most eye-catching piece of artwork in the restaurant.
The menu plays up its modern, international flare. It might be a bit difficult for diners searching for their favorite Indian dishes to spot them – but some of them are there, not necessarily where one expected. You’ll certainly notice a focus on the lighter aspects of Indian cuisine – more emphasis on vegetables and meats than on the starches (potatoes, lentils, and chickpeas) that tend to take on a more central role in traditional Indian cuisine. The menu emphasizes quality ingredients – as co-owner Sachin Mahajan notes, he strives for nothing less than the freshest produce and meat (“Whole Foods quality”), and thus dishes are priced to reflect that investment in sourcing regionally.
We started with a cocktail from their well-stocked bar. Two of us tried the Temple of Salt. Somewhat strangely named, salt plays barely a speaking part amidst a cast of intriguing ingredients that include chartreuse, whiskey, lime, chili bitters, and egg whites. It reminded me of a more complex version of a Pisco sour, which is one of my favorite cocktails. It was so delicious – as well as a nice counterpoint to some of the heat in our dishes – that I ordered a second during the meal.
My group ordered a sampling of several small and larger dishes on the menu. Decisions are difficult on the nuanced menu, so I was grateful for smaller plates. We started with the malai kulcha flatbread (essentially cheesy naan; India’s answer to white pizza), oohed over the succulent chicken tikka (a second order was obliterated after the first).
I ordered the zucchini kofta – definitely an item one doesn’t see on a typical Indian menu. The large dumplings were bathed in an intense, rich tomato and onion sauce and topped with gold leaf – again, another site I’m not used to seeing.
One friend ordered the Chilean sea bass, which was perfectly cooked and elegantly presented. We ordered the grilled eggplant and grilled okra sides – which were generous portions. Both vegetables were cooked simply and without heavy adornment by spices or salt. I have to admit that while I’m not a fan of Okra, I was a huge fan of this okra. It was grilled so well that it was hard to believe it was okra.
I also must point out the stunning presentation of everything we ordered. Executive chef Ajay Kumar and his associates strive for nothing less than edible artwork that rivals anything on the restaurant’s walls. Great food is front and center.
At that point, we were sufficiently full, but we couldn’t pass up the luscious coconut cake. I kept going back for more bites; I just couldn’t stop eating it! One friend ordered the cardamom affogato – a truly transportive experience. If you haven’t tried cardamom ice cream, you haven’t lived! Add nitro brewed coffee and it’s an unforgettable pairing.
Karma’s owners state that their goal is to uplift diners through food. In our case, this mission was accomplished. Beautiful food, expressive with quality ingredients, spiced with love from South Asia and presented with reverence, one cannot leave Karma without feeling as though good things are on the horizon.
*Full disclosure: In the interest of transparency, one of Karma’s owners was an MBA classmate of mine. I could be a little biased, but the opinions are genuine: The food was fantastic, the presentation gorgeous, and the ambiance sleek. I’ll be back!