Indian buffets made me who I am today. My South Asian obsession started when I was in fourth grade, when I started lugging Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks with me to school every day. I did a fair amount of cooking from those tomes, but just as much of my education came from dining out. And the best way to try a wide range of dishes is at a buffet.
Most of what I was eating was Punjabi cuisine. It was only when I relocated to Houston as an adult that I was thoroughly introduced to Rajasthani and Gujarati food, and as a result, thali restaurants.
Thali restaurants are an upscale answer to the buffets of my childhood. Getting up and serving yourself? That’s for peasants. Thalis are large platters (it’s actually the Hindi word for plate), filled with many small dishes. At thali restaurants, there will likely be north of 10 components on each plate, and every one of those can be refilled by servers. It’s elegant, but it’s still all-you-can-eat.
All this is to introduce you to a joyful new addition to Northern Virginia’s dining scene. Jodhpur, located in the Herndon strip mall next to the town’s H Mart, is our region’s only restaurant that serves nothing but bottomless thalis. Repeated attempts to contact the owners were unsuccessful, but it’s clear that they saw a gap in the market. Bhai Sahab in Leesburg serves thalis on Thursday and Sunday and Ashburn’s Rupa Vira’s The Signature has daily thalis, but there was still a need for an upscale destination for nothing but the royal excess synonymous with the concept.
At Jodhpur, this begins with a dining room decorated with the same deep blues that paint the buildings in the city of its name. At the entrance, the color lifts moods, along with a pink neon sign and couch. It’s clear that this is a modern restaurant with a young feel.
But the youthful vibe doesn’t stop diners of all ages from joining the fun. On a recent Sunday, I was seated next to a pair of grandparents introducing their grandchildren to thali meals. As the dining room filled, large groups of extended families took most of the seats. Even on a Tuesday evening visit, the restaurant was packed.
That could be explained by rotation of menus. There are three different set bills of fare at Jodhpur. On Tuesdays and Fridays, guests can expect popular dal bati churma, a sweet-and-savory Rajasthani dish. Bati is a fried bread that, at Jodhpur at least, is shaped a bit like a puffy flower. It rests in a bowl of dal, or lentil stew. The churma is a pile of sweetened breadcrumbs that enhances the spicy stew in an unexpected direction. It’s as good with the dessert of halwa as it is with the dal bati.
I counted 21 components to my meal that night, not including the chaas, seasoned buttermilk that’s intended to cool fired-up palates. Despite that, I didn’t find the food at either of my meals to be hot enough to warrant such a move. Not that the dishes are dumbed down by any stretch. The mostly Indian fanbase can attest to the authenticity of the offerings.
At every meal at Jodhpur, diners can rely on a number of staples. They’ll find a refreshing salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, along with crunchy crumbled pappadum. There’s always jeera (cumin) rice, waiting to be covered in the buttery yellow lentil stew known as khichdi.
Most importantly, there is a server devoted entirely to keeping diners’ plates filled with bread. Whole wheat phulka roti is available every day and each meal seems to demand at least four of the mini flatbreads. There’s bhedmi poori on Wednesday and Saturday, as well as lovably greasy standard poori (without the spiced black lentils of the bhedmi poori) on Thursday and Sunday. Will you fill up on bread? Absolutely.
But don’t let that get in the way of other refills. For one, paneer dishes, filled with bouncy fresh cubes of cheese, are standouts. The handi paneer features a well-spiced tomato-based sauce that deserves trying more than once. The makhmali kebab is a tender tender cutlet of breaded and fried paneer. The mint and tamarind chutneys waiting on the plate are delightful augmentations, no matter which kebab dish you luck upon.
If you’re anything like this critic, you might be asking, “Where’s the beef?” But that will only happen to while reading this review, not eating the food. Yes, Jodhpur is a fully vegetarian restaurant, but even a devoted meat eater like me didn’t think about that at all. There are simply too many shiny, or rather, delicious, objects on the plate to distract you.
Not least of these is the rasmalai, which was on my thali at both of my visits. The cottage cheese balls are often a bit dense for my taste. But in a creamy cardamom broth, these are pillowy soft and almost indescribably airy. At one meal, my dining companion asked for two refills of the dessert and was no worse for the wear.
Trying a thali restaurant is an important part of any food lover’s education. And now, NoVA has a source that’s just as likely to please first-timers and regulars. I’m likely to become one of the latter.
See This: Fuchsia blooms festoon the ceilings, lit by faux crystal chandeliers. Photos of Jodhpur, known as The Blue City, prove the moniker.
Eat This: Poori, handi paneer, rasmalai
Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
1114 Herndon Pkwy., Herndon
Rating: ★★★ 1/2
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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