By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It’s a good thing Sudhir Seth says he needs fewer than five hours of sleep a night. Last month, the owner of the popular Passage to India in Bethesda took on a fresh responsibility: Spice Xing (100-B Gibbs St., Rockville; 301-610-0303, http://www.spicecrossing.com), a curry-fragrant addition to Rockville Town Square.

Created by Seth, who starts each day by preparing food for the $7.95 lunch buffet, the menu focuses on small plates and occasionally ventures beyond the borders of India for inspiration. Persia, for example, is alluded to in a stew of lamb and apricots.

One snack we keep returning to, tandoori wings, sounds ordinary but delivers a fiery punch. Seth practically gives the recipe away when he details how the (plump) wings are rubbed with salt and chili powder, then marinated for a day in garlic, ginger, lemon juice and vinegar before hitting the clay oven. Oh, yeah: Yogurt goes on the chicken, too, to help seal in the flavors.

Tamarind-glazed prawns, anise-spiced scallops, “baby” dosas (a shrunken version of the usual log-size rice-pancake rolls): Diners navigate two dozen appetizers before they read about the main-course choices, which include a glossy toss of bell peppers and cauliflower seasoned with wild onion seeds, and a gingery lamb curry with bites of meat that are a tad tough.

An electric fireplace in a corner of the dining room, a leftover from the old Stonefish Grill, looks out of place. Otherwise, Spice Xing’s design is in keeping with the theme.

Silk sails dress up the ceiling. Blown-up photographs of spices (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg) hint at some of the flavors to come. A wall in the back is devoted to a shimmering “wishing” tree fashioned from plastic gold beads. The life-size detail springs from Hindu mythology, Seth says.

The cocktails, dreamed up by Seth’s business partner Harvinder Sanotra, are up-to-the-minute. (“I like my Stoli neat, no ice,” jokes the chef.) A margarita jazzed up with fresh mint and coriander is particularly refreshing, a little too easy to continue drinking through a meal. Guilty!