When a reporter asks about his menu at Bansari Indian Cuisine in Vienna, chef and co-owner Deepak Sarin says simply, “We are trying to do something new.” Sarin, who grew up in the Rajasthan region of India, spent his early career cooking across India, from Mumbai to Gujarat. But he also honed his chops aboard cruise ships, where he learned the tricks of global cuisines. Every bit of that experience shows on the plates he fills at his restaurant that opened last summer. They hop from the Indo-Chinese flavors developed in Kolkata to Tex-Mex burritos. And they’re 100 percent halal.
Sarin, who splits his time between Bansari and Bhai Sahab in Leesburg, pays intense attention to each of the 100-plus items on his menu and everything has a story. The mohabbat ka sharbat, for example, is a glass of chilled rose milk refreshed with chunks of watermelon. “That comes from Delhi,” he recounts. “They sell it for two or three rupees per glass.” It’s $6 at Bansari, but spice lovers won’t mind when they’re treated to the sweet relief of the intensely pink drink.
Another street-food dish is one of the best ways to start a meal at Bansari. Egg Tapori is named for the tough hawkers of Mumbai who practically accost passersby with their deliciousness, explains Sarin. But the dish itself is his own, an Indian-spiced improvisation on the deviled egg. Served warm, the egg yolks are mixed with butter, onion, and spices, then blanketed in melted cheese and slivers of cilantro.
Ova account for an entire section of the menu, called “Egg Mania,” and dishes include an omelet that’s studded with onions and peppers and served with a pair of pav, buns similar to Hawaiian sweet rolls. But the big reveal happens when the diner cuts in and creamy, tomato-based tikka masala sauce spills forth.
There’s also a menu segment given over to Indo-Chinese cuisine, including Hakka noodles, fried rice, and Szechuan chicken or shrimp. But for just $8, I’d be thrilled to make a meal of the paneer 65 or its cauliflower or chicken brethren listed among appetizers. The bouncy cheese cubes are tossed with mustard seeds and curry leaves, as a 65 dish typically is. But rather than the dry, deep-fried dish I usually expect, Sarin’s 65 is served in a skillet with a spicy-but-smooth vinegar-based sauce that smells like hot wings. The chef boasts that he doesn’t add any unnatural colors to his food, so the reddish hue of the dish comes from spices, not the typical food coloring.
Sarin is also proud that every one of his sauces is made from scratch, not combined with others to optimize kitchen efficiency over taste. He grinds his own spices, too. That means that every sauce has a unique character in both flavor and texture. This may mean a longer wait for food than some Indian restaurants. Believe me when I say it’s worth it.
A prime example is a visit at which my dining partner ordered the chicken curry. Sounds basic, right? It’s anything but. The first bite rattles with freshly chopped ginger, then the whole cardamom pods do their aromatic work. Each bite reveals another bloom of spice. The chicken itself, meanwhile, is so pillowy that a diner’s teeth might get bored for lack of work. Perhaps it’s worthy of a weightier name than merely “chicken curry,” but that makes the surprise of the dish even happier.
At the same meal, I tried to order creamy Quail Nawabi, the most expensive dish on the menu at $21, but it wasn’t available. Instead, the server steered me toward Amritsari tandoori chicken pictured at the top of this page. And now, I don’t know if I can go back to plain tandoori chicken. Sarin’s version features meat cooked to impressive tenderness in the tandoor. But it doesn’t end there. The char-kissed chicken is bathed in a tomato-based sauce made additionally compelling with a drizzle of cream and a liberal dose of cilantro.
That might remind some diners of a bone-in butter chicken, but that’s also an item on the large menu, apparently a Delhi specialty. Clearly, Sarin knows his customers crave the creamy tomato sauce. The menu also includes butter chicken, butter paneer, butter shrimp, and a butter chicken enchilada. That final fusion dish sounded compelling, but it was the only weak link I found on the menu. Actually more like a burrito, the chicken is overwhelmed by the rice that surrounds it within its flour tortilla. But that’s not the problem. The sweet chile sauce on top is the issue. Saccharine and vinegary, it tastes like Sarin has created a new recipe for spicy ketchup. The dish is a compelling idea, but it could still use some refinement.
So could the service. The very young people I had helping me when I visited were eager, but not always efficient or as knowledgeable as they could be. While it would be delightful to have a server steeped in the kind of culinary learning that Sarin brings to the kitchen, I know this isn’t realistic. The kids are also out of practice. Sadly, the chic dining room is mostly empty but for diners picking up bags of takeout. To-go business, happily, appears to be brisk, thanks in part to a deal that gives customers 10 percent off pickup.
Desserts are less innovative. The almond-covered, toasted semolina halwa may be a comforting treat, but I’ve eaten similar versions of the dish elsewhere. I recommend cashing in on carbs with Bansari’s fresh breads instead. The truffle naan is flavored with just a whisper of truffle oil, just enough to add an earthy flavor to every sauce in which it’s dipped. It’s a brilliant innovation, one that Sarin says he conceived of in his cruise-ship days. Who knew Indian food could benefit from truffles? He did. He’s also proud of his missile naan, spread with a fresh paste of green chiles and garlic that’s flavorful enough to eat on its own.
Even for connoisseurs of Indian cuisine, Sarin is bound to supply a revelation or two. That’s the fun of Bansari. And with the size of its menu, diners won’t run out of novel spice combinations anytime soon. // 2750 Gallows Rd., Vienna
A stylish brick dining room is filled with bookshelves, birdcage-shaped chandeliers, and other curios, but most of the customers wait outside to pick up their takeout.
Egg tapori, paneer 65, Amritsari tandoori chicken masala
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner
Appetizers: $5-$10 Entrees: $11-$21 Desserts: $4-$6
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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