Washington Post - October 2002
At Herndon's Supper Club, Old Family Recipes Provide a Passage to India
By Domenica Marchetti
October 10, 2002
The Washington Post
the first thing you notice upon entering Herndon's Supper Club of India is the photographs on the walls. They are stunning framed formal portraits of Indian royalty, men and women bedecked in gleaming jewels and vivid, shimmery silks.
The photos and soft sitar music make you forget almost instantly that you are just steps away from Quizno's and Mozzerella's American Grill in the sprawling Worldgate Centre.
But the pictures are more than an attractive diversion; they hint at the goings-on in the kitchen of this casually elegant restaurant that opened its doors three months ago. Supper Club specializes in a style of cuisine known as dun-pukth, a method that relies on slow-roasting spice marinated meals and vegetables in pots placed over hot charcoal rather than cooking them in the dry, intense heat of a tandoor oven. This seals in the juices and prevents meats from drying out, said Naresh Advani, Supper Club's owner.
Dun-Pukth, which roughly translates to "breathe in" and "cook," originated in the 1780s in a region of northern India known then as Oudh (now part of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). It was perfected by the Qureshi, a family of renowned Indian chefs who served the region's royal family and whose descendants still practice it today.
Advane tapped two members of the Qureshi family, which now numbers more than 250, to run his kitchen. They devised a menu using recipes that have been in their family for generations.
"They used to work for me back in India," said Advani, who owned a restaurant in Bombay before moving to Herndon 12 years ago. "The recipes are kept within the family itself, and the food is very exotic, very different."
That is true. You won't find standard daal (lentil) soup on Supper Club's menu. Instead, there are mildly spiced tomato and chicken soups and a creamy soup made with almonds and mushrooms. More than a handful of dishes feature ground nuts – almonds, cashews or pistachios – and dried fruit, ingredients typically found in dun-pukth cuisine.
One dish that nicely showcases those ingredients is baingan lajawab, baby eggplant stuffed with house-made fresh cheese and raisins and finished in a smooth brown sauce. It's sweet and spicy. Another is gobi gulistan, meltingly soft cauliflower florets simmered in a ground cashew and cream sauce.
The meats, whether grilled or sauced, are tender and succulent. Murg tikka kesari, chunks of kebob-grilled chicken presented off the skewer on a small platter, couldn't be simpler, dressed only in saffron and other fragrant spices. It's juicy, and its char-grilled, slightly nutty flavor, needs no sauce. Supper Club does offer some tandoori dishes, and even here, the chefs' deftness is evident, with one or two exceptions. A sweat-inducing spicy dish called lobster angara, features lobster tail meat marinated overnight in mustard oil, paprika, tomato sauce, lime juice and spices and grilled in the tandoor. Beneath the heat, the chunks of lobster, arranged on a cracked lobster tail shell, are sweet and moist. Tandoori-cooked lamb, seasoned with black pepper, is devoid of sauce but nevertheless tender.
Among the appetizers, vegetable samosas, fried dough pouches stuffed with seasoned patotoes, are light and airy, without a hint of grease, as are the shahi machi fry – slivers of fish fried in a spicy red batter that produces a paper-thin crispy shell. The sesame-coated sticks of fried cheese, while pleasingly crunchy, don't have much flavor. But the breads do, especially the soft, slightly charred naan, which comes to tbe table stacked in a basket.
The dessert menu offers some creative choices, including house-made cardamom-infused pistachio ice cream dusted with chopped nuts, and a dense carrot pudding cooked in milk with chopped nuts and raisins. It's not too sweet, and its unusual earthy flavor invites you to take more spoonfuls.
Advani has come up with a few Indian-inspired cocktails, such as the Supper Club special, made with vodka, banana liqueur and mango juice, and Nizam's Surprise, a concoction of vodka, amaretto and lychee juice.
The wait staff at Supper Club is cordial and helpful, ready to make suggestions to diners who are unfamiliar with the food or who are just having a tough time choosing. It's clear that they want you to enjoy your visit, and the meal is paced so. Our party of five lingered for two horus one recent Saturday evening, never feeling rushed despite the full dining room. (We probably would have stayed longer, but thoughts of relieving the babysitter finally drove us to out the door.)
Supper Club of India is not Advani's first restaurant venture in this area. He also owns the popular and more casual Harvest of India across town in the Herndon Centre, which he opened a decade ago. His goal with Supper Club, he said, was to create a somewhat more upscale atmosphere. Hence the dazzling photos, which hang from the pale, pistachio-hued walls trimmed with purple molding, and the mahogany tables and bars. The tables are draped with dark mustard-colored and white linens.
On a ledge at a far wall, groups of large round urns with tapered necks are on display. A waiter infomed a curious diner that the metal vessels, hand-painted with intricate designs in cream and earth tones once were used to store grain and carry water.
At lunchtime, when the atmosphere is more casual , there is a buffet bar along one wall, with selections of salads, vegetarian dishes, kebobs, hot bread, desserts and fresh fruits. The buffet, priced at $8.95, changes daily and is aimed at people who want a good, fast meal, Advani said. All that, in the company of royalty.
Copyright 2002 The Washington Post