The close-your-eyes-and-order trick won’t work at Agni Restaurant and Bar.
There is no chicken tikka masala, no dal makhani, no saag paneer.
This is a restaurant dedicated to the more fiery cuisine of South India, from the states of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra. Not offering butter chicken is a risk, of course—there’s nary a Chinese restaurant without General Tso—and especially risky for a debut restaurant from two IT professionals with zero experience in the notoriously difficult hospitality industry.
Husband and wife Niranjan Sathindran and Sri Ganesan took on an extra layer of scrutiny when they agreed to let a Washington Business Journal reporter chronicle their journey, from the first steps of signing a lease (then signing a second lease, and wiggling out of the first one in a stretch of Sterling not zoned for restaurants), to the messes of paperwork and licenses to menu development, to a R&D trip to India, tasting and chatting with chefs and scouting for equipment to ship back to the U.S., to finding and training back-of-house and front-of-house staff, to selling out of food with lines of customers to, well, everything else.
Ganesan likens this first year to earning three MBAs, with “lots of bumps, lots of learning.” She’s also writing a book about the family’s trials in their new line of work. “If there is a bowl of curry that comes to the table [there are] a number of processes it has to go through,” she says, least of which happens at the stove.
A bowl of kuruma curry is not as simple as cashews and cream, a dish sporting chunks of softened vegetables that somehow is light but also luxe. The bowl of curry is a complicated amalgamation of business know-how and cooking talent, and everything in between.
But what matters is what’s on the plate. And the feeling of being there, in this minimalist restaurant with pops of black and white and orange and the kind face and flowing hair of Ganesan, who greets and chats with every table, offering a gratis mini mug of rasam. “It’s a comfort food,” says Ganesan, of the few sips of the tomato-based soup balancing black pepper, cilantro, coriander, red chilies and enough salt to wake up the mouth to get ready for the spices to come in the next round of food.
At lunch it’s easy to decide: the thali, a sample platter—with free refills, but no to-go boxes—of curries and lentils and vegetables balancing salt, sugar, spice and sour. It’s one of the most beautiful displays of a kitchen’s talent, all in one order. It’s the little touches too, a smear of a pickled chutney that is deep and savory and fresh and kicky and one could only hope is the new Sriracha.
Dinner is harder, too many choices of too many items that sound fascinating and deliver on that promise: pepper cauliflower is gorgeous, still tender after a dunk in the fryer—and punching with heat. Mutton pepper fry is rich, savory goat meat, spicy on the brink of overpowering, but still beautiful and nuanced, a magnetic pull for more.
Snap back to reality as a foot-and-a-half-long dosa arrives, spiraled onto itself, spreading from one end of the table to another. It’s crackly, papery, a little fermented-funky, with curried potatoes huddled inside. Chicken 65, which comes as an appetizer or flooded with rice and dotted with nuggets of crispy chicken, is simple, but still alluring and a good choice for those afraid of high heat levels. Bad Boy, a cocktail sweetened with jaggery (unrefined sugar used in Asian cuisines) can quench any flames.
Ganesan credits the abundant usage of fresh curry leaves to why everything pops. It’s like salt in a way, how well seasoned food tastes more like itself. Curry leaves “accentuate everything” she says, “It’s a boost.”
Not everything is a recipient of that boost: fried plantains are fairly bland, especially compared to the rest of the spread, and was, on two visits, the only dish that fell flat.
This month marks a year for Agni. The couple is still trying to figure it all out. “What I envisioned is very different from reality,” says Ganesan. “I came from a software background where the rewards are always simultaneous. For the restaurant industry, the rewards are taking a while to realize.” Unless you’re the customer. And then it’s as quick as it takes to bring a taste of curry to your mouth.
Scene: It’s no secret the best meals in NoVA are in strip malls, but it’s hard to stand out in a sprawling complex overshadowed by longtime favorites. This bright, intimate spot—find pillows to cozy up for dinner on the floor—is a gem in this maze.
Don’t Miss: vegetarian lunchtime thali; pepper cauliflower; mutton pepper fry
46005 Regal Plaza, Suite 140, Sterling; Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday; Small plates: $7-$13; Large plates: $11-$15