The temperature is hovering near freezing and a piercing cold wind is blowing the night I first walk into Spice Kraft Indian Bistro. Thankfully, the cozy little restaurant on Del Ray’s main drag is warm, its air redolent with a mélange of subcontinent spices that get my mouth watering. But then there’s a squink-squink noise as a server sprays a tabletop with Lysol. The chemical smell overpowers the enticing scents from the kitchen, immediately curbing my appetite. It was a fitting metaphor for the dining experiences to come: moments of joy followed by dulling disappointments.
Taking over the address previously occupied by Bombay Curry Company, Spice Kraft opened late last summer under the guidance of chef-owner Premnath Durairaj. Born in Pondicherry, a modest city on India’s southern coast, Durairaj ultimately attended culinary school in his hometown. Upon graduation, he began working at the high-end luxury hotel Taj Coromandel in Chennai, a few-hours drive north up the seaboard. In 2012, he moved to Roanoke, Virginia, to take a job heading the kitchen at Taaza, an Indian restaurant. He moved to this area last summer when this location became available, drawn by the appeal of a strong neighborhood clientele.
It’s a small, sparsely decorated space, seating 42 guests indoors and another 14 out front at the patio when the weather permits. The 40-year-old chef’s focus is clearly on the sprawling menu, which features well-known favorites alongside more unconventional options. The vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items are all thoughtfully noted.
There are half a dozen opening numbers. Stick with the by-the-book golden trifold samosas packed with a well-spiced mash of potatoes and more, which come with tangy sweet tamarind sauce and aromatic mint chutney for dunking. Other options are less successful. Deep-fried cauliflower florets are tossed in an unpleasantly sweet ketchup-like sauce, while mango-and-ginger crispy chicken lacks crunch and again overdoes the sweetness. Meanwhile, spinach pakora chaat are more fritter than vegetable, inelegantly offset with a splattering of tamarind and yogurt.
Entrees take a there’s-something-for-everyone approach. For the uninitiated, an easy starting point is the mix and match Indian classics section, where diners pair a protein with sauce. There are meaty options—such as lamb, chicken and salmon—and vegetarian-friendly choices, including paneer and tofu, which can be combined with well-known faves like tikka masala (creamy tomato), korma (cashew- and almond-based) and vindaloo (red chili-spiked).
As with all the mains, servers will ask how spicy you’d like the dish prepared. Sadly, requests for high heat went unheeded and the spice level never did more than tingle my tongue. Service was generally an issue across my visits, oftentimes perfunctory and inattentive. For a restaurant aiming to be a part of the neighborhood’s fabric, it would be better served to make its clientele feel more at home.
Meats were mostly misfires. Bone-in lamb shank was bone dry; moistureless chicken chunks hid in a mound of rice for the biryani preparation and salmon tikka was arid. A bright spot was chicken tikka blushing with freshly ground red Kashmiri chili. Marinated for two days with ginger-garlic paste, garam masala and Greek yogurt, the meat was tender and juicy. More like that, please!
There are other dishes worth seeking out. Powered by black lentils and red kidney beans, dal makhani is richly satisfying comfort food. Scoop it up with your choice of breads, like toothsome naan spangled with garlic or char-bubbled roti. Another winner: kata meta okra and aloo, a brush pile of deep-fried sliced okra and potato, is seasoned with a flurry of mango powder, spices and tamarind chutney. Hiding underneath the thicket are chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro and mango. The dish offers a surprising array of sweet, sour and savory notes in pleasant concert.
The lunchtime-only, Chipotle-burritosized wraps are both hearty and healthy. Best of the bunch is the one stuffed to the gills with garlicky, gingery deep-fried cauliflower along with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and raita-ish yogurt mix.
To complement your meal, there’s a small wine and beer list, as well as a few zero-proof options. The best of the latter is the nearly-thick-as-a-milkshake mango lassi and the well-spiced iced chai latte. For dessert, hew to tradition and opt for simple, but satisfying, gulab jamun. Otherwise you may find yourself battling stubbornly dense bread pudding or watery rice pudding. After every visit, I left wishing for a sweeter ending—literally and metaphorically. // 2607 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; Open daily for lunch and dinner; Starters: $5-$10; Entrees: $12-$24
Score: 1.5 stars
Chef Premnath Durairaj crafts fusion-y fare that sometimes soars and sometimes stumbles.
Kata meta okra and aloo, dhal makani, chicken tikka, cauliflower wrap