Diners who enter Kismet Modern Indian’s airy auspices expecting wild-mushroom-and-truffle-oil naan will be disappointed. Tamarind potato spheres? Not this time. That is to say: Kismet is not its sister, DC’s Karma Modern Indian. But chances are, you won’t mind.
While Karma was New Delhi–bred chef Ajay Kumar’s first shot at notoriety, featuring the kind of imaginative fare that won him notice from Michelin Guide inspectors, Kismet is his ode to home cooking. “I was inspired by my mother and grandmother,” he says. “They were very good at cooking, and I learned a lot of things from them.” His goal at Kismet is to apply their command of flavor to modern presentations.
That isn’t always what happens. Visual showstoppers like the tangy sweet potato—an Aztec pyramid built of overly firm cubes of the root coated in tamarind sauce-fall flat, while basics like a side of all-brown dal makhani, albeit served in an attractive stone bowl with a topping of microgreens, are more likely to impress a palate primed for a blitz.
The striking flavors of the simplest dishes, such as that creamy lentil curry, come courtesy of freshly ground spices. Everything from cumin to green cardamom to mace is shipped from India whole. Each morning, Kumar and his team grind the spices and combine them in mixes like the garam masala that dresses the lamb chops. “If I am making lamb, I have to grind all the spices right before making it,” he says, adding that produce at the restaurant is never frozen. “If you compare with other restaurants, you can see the difference.”
And that lamb? The trio of melting chops may be cooked over some diners’ preferred temperature, but overlook that. They ignite the taste buds with their spice-rubbed, tandoor-singed edges. They’re served over cubes of potatoes flavored with ajwain seeds (identified as carom on the menu), an aromatic addition that doesn’t detract from the bigger impact of the meat. Like many dishes at Kismet, the dish is also served with a pile of greens that is too lightly dressed to register as anything more than olive oil. The crunch is nice, but a hint of tamarind or mint might be even nicer.
The obvious care with which each dish is prepared can result in long wait times—a quick lunch at Kismet will likely take two hours. This is both an argument for and against ordering multiple courses, named with dramatic terms like “manifestations” and “reflections” for cocktails and “heavenly breads” for the dough that’s cooked in the tandoor.
And in that case, it might not be hyperbole. The lush carbs include basics like plain and garlic naan, but what’s the fun in that? “It came to my mind to try something new,” says Kumar. Something like olive naan, a fluffy round of bread burnished with butter and laden with three colors of the salty fruit. Their bitterness, it turns out, only enhances the well-balanced spices of Kumar’s curries. But his experiments are not without flaws: The garden naan is so heavily dosed with mustard oil on top of scallions and cilantro that it can conjure World War I trench warfare.
Not that I want to deter Kumar from his stronger flavors. His lamb seekh kebab, for example, is powerfully spicy, but its appeal only grows with the heat of the tender ground meat. Calcutta jhal muri is a street-food dish that weaves crunchy puffed rice with green chiles, date chutney, and cilantro. The mix of sweet and spicy means that the pair of paper cones is bound to be consumed quickly. Perhaps too quickly. At $10, they seem more like an amuse-bouche than an appetizer that can stand on its own.
Portions at Kismet are generally larger than at Karma, says Kumar. Most appetizers can be easily shared between two people. My favorite of these is the malai chicken, a juicy kebab of tandoor-kissed poultry that’s marinated in yogurt and spices and all but glows with the addition of minty chutney on the side.
The highlight among the curries is spinach-and-cauliflower kofta. The chunky vegetarian meatballs are sturdy enough to remain whole within their gingery tomato sauce but soft enough to dissolve between the diner’s teeth. They’re served beneath a layer of edible silver foil.
In a March interview, Kumar said that the spring menu will include more seafood dishes, among them lobster, scallops, and crab cakes. If his take on Goan snapper peri peri is any evidence, he has a way with ocean fare. The fish, drenched in its spicy sauce, is firm but yields at the touch of a fork. Its side of merrily yellow lemon rice is a nice touch and an antidote to the heat.
All that fire might leave a diner craving something sweet. For such an inkling, I recommend the nut-dusted round of carrot halwa, a pudding that’s common on Indian menus but difficult to find as creamy and not-oversweet as Kumar’s version.
Is it modern? Not particularly. But it’s scrumptious enough to make even a cranky critic stop caring.
See This: A colorfully tiled bar catches the eye, along with angular light fixtures that loom over the white slats of the dining room walls. Modern? Yes, indeed.
Eat This: Malai chicken, spinach-and-cauliflower kofta, warm carrot halwa
111 N. Pitt St., Alexandria