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Passage to India, Cordell Ave in Bethesda - Chef Mahipal Negi and Owner Sudhir Seth

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Mr P and I tried Passage to India for lunch today, and it may just be the best Indian food I've ever had. The first adjective that popped into mind, after trying a bite of lamb stew with dried apricot and thin sticks of fried potato (salli boti jardaloo), was "elegant". I don't believe I've ever felt that way about Indian food before. The words "subtle" and "nuanced" also came to mind.

In addition to the stew, we tried

aloo tak: crisp potatoes in three sauces - yogurt, tamarind, and, um, green

samosa chaat: a samosa perched on mildly spiced chickpeas - quite good although the bottom of the samosa got soggy rather quickly

makhmali kofta: vegetable dumplings in a delicious creamy sauce that I can't begin to decipher

palak makai: spinach and corn cooked together - soft, creamy, subtly nuanced and elegant... also, I asked for and was served a half portion, at close to half price; this isn't on the menu but good to know that they'll do it

chaina kheer: a dessert not unlike my beloved rasmalai, tiny paneer patties in a milk sauce with saffron and pistachios

the tea was pretty decent, too; think I tasted cardamom and cinnamon in it

No dinner for me tonight.

I last dined in this space when it was an outpost of Heritage India, and the experience was not good. Passage to India, though... wow. Damn fine food. And there's goat on the menu! I'll be going back soon.

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RaisaB   

Just got back from lunch at Passage. It was all she ^said.

We had the lunch specials, thinking it would be quick and light. Well no to both. It wasn't un-light as the food had an airiness about it that I have never associated with Indian food. We had the Shrimp curry and the Kabab Khazana. This was served with their black lentils, rice and salad. We also ordered a side of Raita and Naan. It was simply some of the best Indian food I have ever had. It wasn't swimming in mysterious oil, the spices were perfectly blended so that none overly dominated. I really thought I would just have a few bites and leave most on my plate when I walked in...nah it didn't happen that way. There was not a drop left on either of our plates!

You would of thought we would have been satiated as portions were generous, but no. We ordered the Kafti (an orange ice cream/sorbet with an orange sauce) and the Chaina Kheer mentioned above. I would go there just for the desserts! I REALLY wanted to lick the plates.

What a pleasant surprise this restaurant is. Please go if you like Indian food or if you have never tried, it really is wonderful.

Edited by RaisaB

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Interesting. Porcupine says "subtle" and "nuanced." When my wife and I ate there a few months ago, we said "tame" and "a bit boring." We found the food to be good, but it lacked the vibrant flavors that I associate with Indian food. The best Indian food I've had manages to be well-balanced and assertive at the same time.

Maybe I have unrefined tastes, but there just seemed to be something missing. The food that we expected to be spicy (as in hot) and robust was instead muted and subdued. It was all well executed and good, and I'd eat there again. But I was not blown away.

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mdt   

Last time I was there, about a month ago, we had shared an order of ALOO PHOOLKOPIR DALNA, KOSHA MANGSHO, and DAL KALONJI. Not being experts on Indian cuisine we found the dishes well spiced and very good. Have you been other times or just that once? I hope it was just an off day for the restaurant.

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I've been there once to eat in and had take out once at a friend's house. Frankly, we thought the take-out was better than the eat-in. As I said, I'd eat there again, and I'd recommend it to friends. I was just taken a bit aback by the glowing praise of Porcupine and Raisa. It was good, well-executed food, but it didn't knock my socks off.

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bioesq   

"The food that we expected to be spicy (as in hot) and robust was instead muted and subdued. It was all well executed and good, and I'd eat there again. But I was not blown away."

I'm wondering if it's the location rather than the skills of the chef? Bethesda has never really catered to a diverse ethnic dining population, and I think that's reflected in the dishes served. I've found that further up-county the spices are more pronounced, and the cooking more attuned to native rather than American tastes.

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DonRocks   

Passage To India is the best Indian restaurant in the Washington DC area.

Stay tuned for your chance to verify in person,

Rocks.

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RaisaB   

Having consumed Indian food all over Europe and the States but never in India, I will reassert my opinion of Passage To India. It was refined Indian food. It was not what I would necessarily consider to be "street" Indian cuisine. It reflected the subtle nuances of the spices without blowing your tastebuds away. It was not overly spicy, which of course may have been tempered to American tastes, but the London Indian food that I have tasted was much blander than anything I tasted here.

So I reassert my opinion, and that is all it is , an opinion, this is great Indian food for the area. If you know any place in this area that can blow it away, by all mean please post your opinion of it. I will visit in a New York minute.

Edited by RaisaB

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JeffC   
Having consumed Indian food all over Europe and the States but never in India, I will reassert my opinion of Passage To India. It was refined Indian food. It was not what I would necessarily consider to be "street" Indian cuisine. It reflected the subtle nuances of the spices without bolwing your tastebuds away. It was not overly spicy, which of course may have been tempered to American tastes, but the London Indian food that I have tasted was much blander than anything I tasted here.

So I reassert my opinion, and that is all it is , an opinion, this is great Indian food for the area. If you know any place in this area that can blow it away, by all mean please post your opinion of it. I will visit in a New York minute.

No place in the area can blow it away, but some very good Indian food is being served as Rasika, as well as Heritage India. These three are my favorites--along with the vegetarian South Indian Woodlands--each for different reasons. I can't really say that one is better than the other, as each has knock-your-socks-off signature dishes. I love Passage to India's concept of dishes from four regions--where else can you find the Parsi lamb stew in metro DC, just to name one? I've been to India several times and have rarely eaten food that surpasses the best that can be found here. Indian food is my favorite and I feel more than fortunate to have such good choices.

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No need for anybody to be defensive. Taste is inherently subjective. I was not blown away. Full stop. I wish I could remember what I had when I ate there so I could comment on specific dishes, but, frankly, the meal wasn't that memorable for me.

Service issues aside, I would prefer to go to Heritage India in Glover Park. Somebody else probably disagrees with me, and that's a-ok by me.

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RaisaB   

I don't think anyone was being defensive. I totally agree that tastes are subjective.

As far as Indian food, I have cooked it quite a bit myself and this is much different than anything I have made. I have used recipes from Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey so I think theywere pretty authentic.

I really enjoyed this because it wasn't in your face spicy, just tasty.

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Passage To India is the best Indian restaurant in the Washington DC area.

Stay tuned for your chance to verify in person,

Rocks.

Yep, I agree whole heartedly

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Well, it looks like I'll have to try it again. In fact, I just e-mailed my wife and suggested we go this weekend.

Like I said above, we actually had a better experience with takeout. We had the takeout at a friend's house and both of us said, "Hmmm. This is really good." Then, when we went to the restaurant itself a few weeks later, we were underwhelmed (though I should have mentioned we did appreciate that the menu had a few items different than your standard Indian restaurant menu).

I just made reservations yesterday to eat at Rasika in a few weeks. I had Heritage India about a week ago. And now Passage to India this weekend. For what it's worth, I'll report back when I'm done.

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Speaking of reservations, I should make some too. My husband has been craving chef's butter chicken and is making a lot of noise about it.

Hungry Prof - do post about your dinner. Would love to read your comments. THe restaurant really does as great job with its regional curries. I have spend time in the kitchen with Chef Sudhir and he really is one of the best chefs in town.

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bilrus   
I just made reservations yesterday to eat at Rasika in a few weeks. 

At Rasika, if you go in looking for fire you might be disappointed. More than any other Indian I've had, I found the spicing there to be subtle and complex. It is more refined.

That doesn't make it better or worse than what you can get at your local curry shop. But it does stand out because of it.

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This is probably something for another discussion, but it's not that I'm simply looking for "fire." If I wanted food that was just hot, then I'd dump a bottle of Tabasco on everything. The most interesting hot food doesn't overwhelm you with spiciness just for the sake of being spicy. (Think about the worst Chinese food any of us have probably had: food that is simply overwhelmingly spicy without any purpose.)

What, in my mind, was missing in my experience at Passage to India was a certain assertiveness in the spicing. Even spicing that is "subtle" and "complex" can be assertive and purposeful. Even food that is "refined" can be interesting and flavorful. Put differently, I can imagine a vindaloo that is simultaneously spicy, complex, refined, and even (in its own way) subtle.

"Subtle" and "complex" should not mean, frankly, boring. Unfortunately, we found the food at Passage to be a bit boring (while still good, I should repeat). As I noted above, I am going to try it again. One takeout experience plus one eat-in experience is clearly not enough to pass final judgment on anything.

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JeffC   
At Rasika, if you go in looking for fire you might be disappointed.  More than any other Indian I've had, I found the spicing there to be subtle and complex.  It is more refined.  

That doesn't make it better or worse than what you can get at your local curry shop. But it does stand out because of it.

I thought the Black Cod and the Butter Chicken were fairly tame, but the Green Chicken Masala was plenty fiery....and delicious. It's my favorite dish so far, except for the flash-fried spinach/tamarind appetizer, which really did knock my socks off.

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bbhasin   

In my opinion Passage is the best Indian Kitchen in the area. Chef/ Owner Seth is extremely talented and I applaud him for presenting the selection that he does on his menu. I can assure you that a similar selection would be difficult to find, on a single, menu even in some of the best establishments in India.

Do I like everything on the menu ? No, but that's my personal taste, not because it has not been 'authentically' prepared.

Spicy is not neccessarily hot, it's well seasoned but not overwhelming in heat. Indian cuisine generally has no standard recipes, there are regional nuances, blending more into each other as the world gets smaller, almost everyone has their own personal spice blend or take on every facet of cooking and there are a billion of them over there! No wonder it is confusing.

It appears Don is cooking up something at The Passage, if so please sign me up.

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It appears Don is cooking up something at The Passage, if so please sign me up.

Sign me up as well. I went to the eGullet street food dinner at the Passage a couple of years ago. I have not been back only because the location is geographically undesirable for me.

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anzia   

In October my husband and I tried Passage to India. He had one of the vegetarian samplers, I tried the spinach and corn (palak makai). The sampler was good, but the palak makai was better. It's a perfect combo of creamy and spicy.

But we're both vegetarians and for the drive we probably won't return often when Woodlands is closer. Too bad - I think the chef lives in our area? Maybe he can be persuaded to open a restaurant in suburbia!

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But we're both vegetarians and for the drive we probably won't return often when Woodlands is closer. Too bad - I think the chef lives in our area? Maybe he can be persuaded to open a restaurant in suburbia!

Would love to branch out but their has to be enough Indian food sensitized palates to provide a critical mass effect, to get any ethnic restaurant rolling forward. Believe me, I have been actively looking for an economically viable location in Bowie, Silver Spring north and College Park areas, in addition to far flung Virginia etc.

Since you both are vegetarians (and on multiple other requests) for more variety we will be shortly posting on our website and make an addendum available to our menu of all the items that the kitchen can prepare in addition to our already varied veggie selection.

Sudhir

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Pappy   

I was with Steve S and two others for lunch a few weeks ago when he wrote on another board...

"Want to know how to have a great meal at Passage to India in Bethesda? Order the roti plain, (it will come out hot and fresh and crispy) and turn to the back page of the menu for their condiments, especially the pickles and the spices. And....then just stop there. Or order anything else. The pickles and the spices are so good, they could make footwear taste delicious.

For the record, other items I tried were the potato dish from the South Indian section, the lotus stem from the North Indian section, the black lentils, and the lamb korma. The potatoes, lotus stem, and lentils were beautifully spiced, carefully prepared, and thoroughly satisfying. The lamb was forgettable. They have many interesting vegetarian selections here, this is probably where the gold is."

I was back with my wife and 4 yr old son for lunch on Saturday. I couldn't resist the spice and pickle plates again. We also enjoyed a brunch special that included an appetizer sampler (a cool chicken tikka salad, a lentil filled samosa and a vegetable fritter served with raita and another sauce), a choice of chicken or lamb (in a savory ground almond sauce) entree, spinach and corn, those same lucious black lentils, and rice pudding for dessert, all for $24.95, FOR TWO PEOPLE! Washed down with a large Taj Majal beer, it was a perfect lunch in a beautiful setting.

I'm looking forward to returning for lunch and experiencing the rest of the menu.

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JPW   

The JPW clan stopped in on Friday night. They were extremely accomodating to Peanut, who in turn was fairly well behaved, left only a minor mess by her standards, and spent a fair amount of time flirting with the staff.

Having neglected to write down the names of anything, I'll have to go by descriptions. For mains we had chicken in a spicy cilantro sauce that I enjoyed a great deal. In this dish, spicy meant some high note spices that married quite well with the cilantro. I believe this is on the West India dishes list. We also had lamb in a spicy brown sauce. Very well seasoned with a Scoville level that gradually rose until you finally realize -- this stuff has some kick (as Peanut found out to her minor dismay. I'll turn that kid into a chile-head yet). I believe this is on the West India list. Add in some naan, raita and the spice plate (that pickled condiment is fascinating) and we had a wide variety of flavors with no dogs at all. A couple of kingfishers and I was a happy boy.

The way to go is definitely to order things from different regions to get a wide variety of flavors. It had been too long since we had been and we definitely need to return more often.

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