What do you do if your successful restaurant is suddenly gutted by a raging fire? If you're chef/owner Tony Chemmanoor of Indigma, you take matters into your own hands and move across the street.
Less than a year ago, in the wee hours of a chilly December morning, a five-alarm blaze caused extensive damage to Indigma and other restaurants and offices in Mt. Vernon's historic district. The buildings that housed the operations are still under repair, but Indigma, known for its fine modern Indian cuisine, set up shop in new quarters in an elegantly refurbished town home, a stone's throw from the old place.
The relocation took months, but, finally, in August, Chemmanoor was ready for diners. Previous fans of the restaurant need not worry. Chemmanoor, a pleasant host in the dining room, hasn't lost his culinary touch. The food, which also borrows from Indo-Chinese fare, is as fabulous as ever.
The kitchen's attention to detail is impressive. Every dish is infused with aromatic herbs and spices and the freshest of ingredients. When I visited Indigma for the "grand buffet" at lunchtime, I talked to Chemmanoor at the food stations as he was setting up small cards to identify each item. We had a lively discussion about one of the day's vegetables—Brussels sprouts. They were beautiful specimens: emerald green, tender, and pickled. He had no idea who I was, but his passion for his offerings impressed me.
The midday spread ($9.95 weekdays, $12.95 weekends) is a great way to sample several of the restaurant's dishes. There are a variety of chicken preparations, including tikka, masala, curried, and wings; a vegan section with daal and korma options; salads; chutneys; pappadam, the East Indian crackly thin bread; and desserts like rice pudding, mango cream, and fresh fruit.
The lovely dining rooms with soaring ceilings, carved moldings, and crystal chandeliers provide a plush setting to savor your food. Caribbean colors like fuschia and yellow enliven the space. Tables are covered in white linens topped with a single pink rose in a clear vase. And windows overlook pretty Mt. Vernon Place. All of this has an even more romantic feel in the evening.
At dinner, guests are presented with a huge menu for à la carte choices. There is also a three-course, $24.95 option if you choose. We ordered separate items, starting with three small plates.
The open-face samosa has a twist. The pleasantly spicy potato-and-pea filling comes in a small fried pastry bowl, instead of the usual triangle morsels. It works and is intriguing. The Bombay chicken lettuce cup allowed us to wrap the seasoned minced chicken and peas into crisp lettuce leaves and share with the table. The masala mussels featured large, "slow-cooked" mussels in a tangy tomato sauce. Perhaps it was the way they were prepared, but the texture of the mussels may not appeal to everyone. They were, well, slippery like okra.
I always like naan, and Indigma's bread is puffy and delicate, great for dipping into the several available chutneys, including onion and mint, or into a side order of creamy raita.
Many of the main dishes are simmered or cooked for hours with their various components to absorb the complex flavors. They look like unexciting stews when presented to the table until you dig into them. The chicken tikka masala, for example, resembled a thick, murky casserole. But take a bite of its rich contents, and you're transported to another continent.
It was the same case with the Kashmiri rogan josh, a bland-looking mash-up. The result, though, was succulent lamb cubes in a sensuous garam-masala sauce. Pass the naan to swipe up any leftover dribbles. Fragrant basmati rice with sunny threads of saffron is served with each dish and also provides a means for soaking up the broth.
One of our top dishes was the salmon tikka from the menu's grill section. Chunks of center-cut salmon, dusted with spices like turmeric and chili, shared the plate with grilled green peppers, broccoli florets, mushrooms, and tomatoes. It was a supersized portion and easily provided a meal for the next day.
After ingesting all the heady spices, we craved something sweet. The mango mystique dessert attracted us with its promise of caramelized fruit. Served with a thick-textured vanilla ice cream, the two candied strips of mango were excellent. We hesitated to order the chocolate heaven. It didn't seem appropriate to the restaurant. But we're glad we trusted our instincts. It's a chilled concoction that tasted like a thick Almond Joy candy bar served in a soufflé cup. Whatever its nationality, it was a success.
Indigma has full-bar service, but do try the mango lassi—India's classic drink of yogurt and fruit. The only oddity is that the refreshing beverage is served in a wine glass with a green-cactus stem. The country does have these succulents, but the glass made me think of a Tex-Mex eatery. It's a tiny quibble. A slightly bigger one is the service.
The wait staff is unfailingly polite but doesn't seem to have grasped some of the techniques of service. At dinner, our waiter hovered over us until we finally made our food decisions—challenging due to the number of choices—making us feel rushed. At lunch, it took 20 minutes to get the check.
Chemmanoor, a genial presence, makes up for any lapses with his interest in your dining experience. There has been some discussion that he will move his restaurant back to its old location at some point when it's rebuilt. I hope he reconsiders, if that's the case. This location glimmers with hope after the devastation of the fire.