Karma Modern Indian Changes the Indian Game in DC

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Karma is cooking the best Indian food in DC right now. And I ate at Bombay Club last week so, yes, my judgement is up to date. These guys have changed the DC Indian game for good. This is the first DC venture for Sachin Mahajan and Ricky Singh, who also have restaurants in New Delhi, India, and they’re using some of their families’ recipes to throw a curveball into your idea of what Indian food looks and tastes like.

Each dish was impeccably prepared and plated, from our starters including the delightfully crisp chicken lollis, to our visually intriguing Karma sweet platter for dessert (more on those later). And the service is somehow already a fine-tuned machines. (Probably because they poached grade A talent from some of DC’s best restaurants.) First course came out quickly, and we had ample time to finish and chat and order more cocktails before the next courses started to arrive – impressive considering they’ve only been open about a week. The vibe is very New York – in a good way. It’s bright and airy with upbeat music and a contagious energy. The space has unique touches like marigold plaster imprints on the wall (to mirror the marigolds in many of the cocktails and dishes) and a chandelier filled with native Indian spices. The kitchen is open, and there are a dozen or so bar seats where you can belly right up to watch chef Ajay Kumar conduct his culinary orchestra.

As for the bar program: watch out Columbia Room, the Gibson, Left Door, et al. Karma is coming for you. James Lanfranchi, the lead bartender who many of you will recognize from his previous stint at Fiola, told us that while the cocktail menu is short right now, they are in the process of developing an extensive cocktail list with house made shrub, tinctures, and even some imported Tibetan incense. On more than one occasion James came to our table to take our drink order, and he would ask us to give him three adjectives that we want in a cocktail. My first were “boozy (duh), vegetal, and savory.” James came back with a tiny bowl of cardamom seeds, a blow torch, and a red concoction. Prior to that, while we were still at the bar, a bartender lit a stick of incense, put it in what looked like a sugar packet holder with an espresso cup, and made an earl grey infused gin concoction. Great early impressions. More on that later. Let’s get to the food.

We started with four small plates: chicken lolli, chicken tikka, nariyal chili prawns, and chicken a la tartar.

The chicken lollis come on a sugar cane stick and are served in little glasses on a dollop of sweet chili sauce. These are everything you want a fried chicken appetizer to be: hot, crispy, and juicy. The sugar cane stick adds a hint of sweetness and the sweet chili sauce at the bottom accompanies that perfectly. Not too sweet, not too spicy. I could throw these on a biscuit and eat them every day for breakfast. They come 3 to an order, but since we were 4 the kitchen was kind enough to send out a bonus chicken lolli so we could all indulge.

Everyone knows chicken tikka. It’s a staple for American Indian food diners. But it’s not always executed perfectly. This was. Plump, juicy nuggets of white meat chicken arrived piping hot, cooked in yogurt and Karma’s house blend of tandoori spices. Served with a classic green chutney. Again – something I would love to put on a biscuit in the morning. You’ll want more than one order of these.

The thing I learned at this dinner was that nariyal means coconut. So these are coconut chili prawns cooked on the griddle and served in a zesty tomato-based sauce. It had all the classic Indian flavors but with little hints of Italian (in the basil), and Latin (in the spicy tomato and onions). The prawns were big enough for multiple bites, and you’ll want to sop up that extra sauce with your naan.

This was one of the most unique and one of my favorite dishes I’ve had in recent memory. At first glance “chicken a la tartar” reads a little too closely to “chicken tartare” which makes you panic. But once you realize it’s grilled chicken with yucca and an Indian take on tartar sauce, you feel better. Sachin told us this was his own, personal recipe. It’s a base of what seems to be either fried or baked yucca that is then diced and topped with grilled chicken that’s been mixed with a tartar sauce and some other spices. The whole thing is then crowned with fresh microgreens and little spiced rice puffs. It’s like your grandmother’s chicken salad went and studied abroad in Mumbai for the summer. It’s served warm and is meant to be all mixed together and eaten in one big chickeny, yuccay, creamy, savory, bite.

For our mains, we all shared four larger plates: the lamb shank nihari, butter chicken (duh), tandoori chicken, and lobster masala.

First off, the lamb shank is huge. You are getting your money’s worth with this one. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but it easily weighed a couple pounds. Nihari is a traditional Indian stew, so the lamb is cooked low and slow and falls right off the bone. The stew itself is the perfect pair to a piece of naan or the roasted eggplant that’s served with the lamb (more on that below). The smells coming off of this plate are intoxicating. It goes from sweet to savory to spicy all at once. And the lamb flavor isn’t overpowering for those that don’t love lamb.

Butter chicken: another classic for American Indian diners. Often made, but not always made well. This one is made well. The chicken is tender enough to be cut with a fork. The base is a velvety bath of spices that, like so many others, you’ll want some naan to sop up. Now if only I can get Karma to deliver to my house this winter…

I’ve had a lot of roast chickens in my day, and this one ranks right near the top. It’s crispy and charred in all the right places, and juicy and tender inside. It’s stuffed with a blend of mint and other herbs and soak right into the meat to tantalize your taste buds. And it rests on a bed of “angel hair potatoes” which do a nice job of collecting some of the chicken’s juices and make for a treat once the chicken is all gone.

Of all the delicious things so far, this lobster masala is the piece de resistance. The lobster is pulled out of the shell, cut into bite-sized pieces and mixed into a spicy tomato, onion, spices, peppers and magic sauce before it’s loaded back in for plating. It’s surrounded by warm, sauteed beets. Our waiters recommended taking a bit of the lobster mix and the beets together, which creates an incredible blend of the acidic lobster mix with a rich and almost fatty tasting (in a good way) beet. It was great together, and both components are great on their own.

Ok so we didn’t order this. But I saw it come out of the kitchen and had to inquire. Yes that’s a lot of real gold on it. Yes it’s basically just a plate of dal. But it’s dal with gold! And it smelled incredible. Ask for the golden dal and see what happens.

For our sides we got the grilled okra, the Brussels sprouts foogath, and the roasted eggplant.

Full disclaimer: I am a big fan of all things okra. Fried okra, pickled okra, okra as a garnish, okra in gumbo, the Delta State Fighting Okra (RIP). I realize a lot of folks hate okra and most of them hate it because of the texture is usually pretty mushy. Karma’s grilled okra is not even the slightest bit mushy. It’s grilled almost to a crisp with a nice chargrilled flavor. And it’s dusted in some sort of salty spice blend that’ll leave you wanting more. These were basically the french fries of our meal: perfect with everything, crispy, salty, “vegetabley”, and one of those things that no matter how full you are, you can still eat more.

The other thing I learned at dinner was that foogath basically means steamed with spices. So the Brussels sprouts foogath are steamed and shredded Brussels sprouts with a nice spice profile mixed in. Simple, but tasty. A nice green accompaniment to all of our meats.

And I forgot to take a picture of the roasted eggplant. But trust me on this one: it was divine. Super flavorful and a great vehicle for leftover sauce from other dishes.

On to dessert. We had the coconut cake and the Karma sweet platter.

The coconut cake is moist (sorry I hate that word too, but it is) and rich. It’s on top of a tart raspberry sauce and balances out the cake’s creaminess and richness. Not exactly what I think of when I think of Indian dessert, but it was still a treat.

We ordered the Karma sweet platter having no idea what it was and were delighted when this little garden of sweetness came out. We were later told that everything is chickpea based – whether it’s made with chickpea flower (like the yellow “dirt”) or is a base of crushed chickpeas mixed in with other ingredients. Each of the little flowers or planters or whatever they’re supposed to be had a different flavor (some fennel, some coriander), and were sweet but not overpoweringly sweet. It’s a unique dish that’s as photogenic as it is tasty.

Last but not least, the cocktails. Admittedly I didn’t capture all of our wonderful bar creations, but here’s a sampling to whet your whistle.

As I said before, the bar staff are working on finalizing their full cocktail menu so all of these were “off menu” as of now. One of the bartenders had just squeezed some baby kale and ginger, and offered to make me something with that. Nothing like a little green juice with your booze right? So this ended up being baby kale juice, ginger juice, vodka, and a ginger beer floater with a starfruit and sugar cane garnish. Don’t let the kale scare you – this was a good cocktail.

This is the aforementioned Tibetan incense/tea/gin concoction. The smoke from the incense floats over into the espresso cup so when you pour the cocktail out of the little pitcher, it all mixes together into a smokey, tart, boozy drink. The pitcher holds about 4 espresso cups worth of the cocktail. This was probably my favorite of the night. But I am easily amused by fun presentations.

On the left is another of the kale/ginger/vodka cocktails. On the right is the result of another of the “three adjective” cocktails. This was a mezcal, grapefruit, marigold mixture that was potent and delicious. A dangerous combination.

And a few classics: in the front is an espresso martini, and in the back are two gin fizzes of sorts.

If you were only here for the pictures, but got to this point and are reading this, make no mistake: Karma is doing big things. Get there before it becomes impossible to get in. If you live and/or work right around 600 Mass Ave, I envy you. And if you’re still in the market for New Year’s Eve plans, they appear to be hosting some sort of ticketless celebration until 2am with food served until midnight.

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Edit: Yes I regret not making some pun about “good karma.” I apologize.

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