The first thing people do is eat with their eyes,” says Priyank Vira, general manager of Celebration by Rupa Vira and son of the eponymous chef. And one thing the kitchen doesn’t do is skimp on presentation. There’s gold leaf, dry ice and glitter-treated blooms at practically every turn. But the restaurant, which opened last winter, doesn’t overlook flavor.
Rupa Vira, a self-taught chef, began as a caterer, cooking Indian food for small events in the Ashburn area. But the Mumbai native quickly attracted a following. First, that meant expanding to a large kitchen for catering, but the local Indian population demanded a restaurant from the popular chef. In 2015, she opened the fully vegetarian The Signature by Rupa Vira. “The last few years, we’ve been looking for a space where we could feature a more modern Indian cuisine that we were working toward, bringing together modern gastronomy concepts,” she explains.
It’s easy to have a fairly traditional, if firmly upscale, meal at Celebration, but what’s the fun in that? That’s why it’s best to start by ordering the Seashell Scallops. Three meaty scallops sit in their shells, surrounded by a foam of turmeric mousse, splashed with chile oil and dressed with microgreens. In a departure from the maritime visual theme, blobs of a bright red sauce are swirled on one side of the slate plate. The color comes from the beets that form the basis of the spicy sauce, an earthy foil to the scallops.
Fans of Vira’s street snacks at Signature will want to try her dahi puri. But expect a major departure from tradition. The only thing predictable about the dish is its crispy dough shells. At Celebration, they’re filled with frothy yogurt mousse and topped with blueberry-flavored pearls. The spice of traditional dahi puri is still present, but the blueberries and black currant give it a sweetness that can be a bit much for an appetizer.
Those looking for a more savory starter might be better served by the kurkuri tikki, crispy potato cutlets served sunken into red pepper hummus. They do have a wash of sugar from a topping of apricot marmalade, but it’s less dominant than the sweetness of the dahi puri.
Diners without a sweet tooth will have less of a problem with entrees. On the whole, they are more classic than the showy starters, but are still presented with a great deal of visual appeal. The dum ki sunehri nalli, braised lamb shank, is served in a wide-lipped slate bowl with a smaller bowl balanced on one side. It’s a surprise duo of lamb, with the shank topped in ginger and betraying a strong flavor of fennel seed, the boneless lamb on the side, a more traditional curry.
Lamb also gets some respect in the form of meaty chops loaded with al dente vegetables and served with colorful dots of dill-turmeric sauce. The meat itself is tender, if cooked a hair beyond its ideal temperature. But the sauce and presentation make a slightly above-average pair of chops seem special.
It’s not the only tandoori dish worth trying. Like the lamb shank, the chicken tikka is a double feature. Classic kesari chicken tikka is yellow with saffron, but watch out for the fierce fire of the spicy green hariyali version. Both come with a squiggle of minty sauce to calm the heat and refresh the palate for the next bite.
One word of warning: Whether it’s tandoori meats or curries like the minty, creamy paneer pudina khaas, entrees don’t come with rice or bread. It can add up, but it’s worth ordering a smooth pancake of tortilla-like roti or a cumin-speckled jeera rice to soak up the sauces.
Those extra $4 will be a distant memory when dessert arrives. Sweets are where Vira clearly has the most fun and her creativity stands out even among pastry chefs working outside the Indian oeuvre. Her greatest hit is the rashbari ka ghosla, which combines East and West Indian traditional desserts. What arrives at the table looks like a bird’s nest filled with yellow eggs and dusted with glitter. Yes, the glitter may be a bit much and actually detract from the visual impact, but for anyone who was once a little girl, it’s tough to resist.
The nest is sutarfeni, a dessert of vermicelli fried in ghee topped with almonds and pistachios. The “eggs” are set in a cardamom-suffused, pudding-like treat called basundi. The little balls themselves are saffron-flavored rashbari, also known as rasgulla, sweet cottage cheese balls that burst with sugary syrup at first bite.
But if you’re seeking dinner and a show, ordering the dessert known as the Celebration Special is a must. The fancy version of a celebratory sweet from the Northern Uttar Pradesh region called makhan malai is a milky pudding so light that it’s almost a foam. It can easily be dressed up or down. At Celebration, it comes out of the kitchen with a stream of vapor pouring forth, courtesy of dry ice. It looks like Rob Zombie is about to hit the stage.
Dried rose petals contribute the dessert’s dominant floral flavor. Pockets of sandy jaggery powder add sweetness and texture. Ground pistachios and flakes of almond lend a nutty presence that balances what could be excessive sweetness. The gold flakes advertised on the menu? Missing in action, at least when I tried the dessert.
But that did little to diminish the special feeling of the meal. This is a place to dress up and get ready to be transported by Vira’s little touches of magic. A celebration indeed. // 44260 Ice Rink Plaza, Unit 120, Ashburn
Colorful Indian art enlivens the purple and lavender main dining room. By the bar, tones are bright greens instead.
Seashell Scallop, dum ki sunehri nalli, rashbari ka ghosla
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Appetizers: $8-$19; Entrees: $14-$23; Desserts: $8-$13
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