Service Wait staff adds verve to Spice Xing

By Tom Sietsema
July 4, 2010

If more restaurants employed servers such as Blessing Jasi, I bet I’d hear a lot fewer complaints from diners. Anyone can take orders and ferry food from kitchen to table. But it’s a rare server who gives patrons the genuine sense that there’s no other place he or she would rather be than right there, taking care of diners’ every whim and talking up the menu as if the wait staff themselves had created the dishes.

That’s Jasi, easily tagged at Spice Xing in Rockville Town Square, thanks in part to his Hollywood smile. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also an experienced tour guide who knows his way around Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and his native Zimbabwe. Or that when the novice waiter helped open this restaurant in spring of last year, he set a goal of mastering a dish a day by peppering the chefs with questions (and even now shows up on his days off to taste unfamiliar wines).

You can check out that claim of stellar service by visiting this spirited spinoff of the more traditional Passage to India in Bethesda. Both restaurants are owned by Sudhir Seth, a New Delhi native who has done a swell job of making us forget that his younger restaurant was once a Stonefish Grill. Sails of gold- and orange-colored fabric drape the high ceiling like a tent. Larger-than-life-size photographs of Indian ingredients and a sparkling “wishing” tree fashioned from amber beads grace walls painted in yellow or turquoise.

As its name suggests, Spice Xing weaves a number of accents into its menu, dishes that hint of Persia (lamb and apricot stew) or Portugal (balchao shrimp laced with chilies). Fans of Indian cuisine, which is my favorite, won’t need their hands held, however. They can count on finding samosas, lamb roganjosh and tandoor-cooked chicken and fish: familiar territory. However, I’d seek advice on putting together a meal here, if only to soak up more of Jasi’s charm.

Not long ago, he listened to what companions and I had eaten here previously and devised a fresh game plan. We mentioned that we like fire, and he introduced us to that Portuguese-style shrimp, “the hottest dish on the menu.” When we asked about an okra entree, he practically recited its recipe; the crisp-soft bites of the richly seasoned vegetable get a nice assist from raw mango powder. Which bread should we try tonight? I adore poori, which swells like a blimp when it hits hot oil, and Jasi encouraged my interest, since there were no children at the table. (Children, he explained, are tempted by its balloonlike appearance to touch the poori the moment it hits the table.)

The chefs (there are three) don’t shy away from heat, but even that shrimp tends to sear rather than scorch the palate. That’s a compliment; while you get a definite stab from vinegar and red chilies, you can also pick out tomatoes, curry leaf and a touch of sweetness (from jaggery, a type of sugar popular in India). Chicken wings massaged with chili powder and salt, then marinated in garlic, ginger, lemon juice and vinegar, are also dipped in yogurt to seal in those flavors: Buffalo wings by way of Bombay. (Poultry is a sure bet here, be it the tender and sweetly spiced East Indian-inspired roast chicken or the racier Malbari chicken, moist chunks draped in a velvety, coconut-laced curry.) A bite of rice is the best salve for a tongue on fire, but Spice Xing’s cocktails make fine extinguishers, too. The most refreshing are margaritas tarted up with tamarind or cilantro.

Even random, unassisted ordering can result in pleasures. Mine included charred tamarind shrimp and chunks of lamb dotting a luscious bed of greens cooked in mustard oil (but not the dry lamb roganjosh).

The kitchen can’t be accused of discriminating against vegetarians, who can graze from a field of choices. Dhokla bears a resemblance to corn bread in looks and texture. The chunks of steamed gram flour and yogurt come with two chutneys for dabbing: one a zesty tomato, the other a mild, green-with-cilantro coconut. Even zestier is a hot salad of grilled cauliflower and crisp red bell peppers freckled with black onion seeds. In a lot of places, chana masala is heavy and one-note; here, the chickpeas soar in a concert of warm spices, jalape?o and Indian black salt. Then there are the breads: very good nan, paratha, kulcha and more, speckled with chopped herbs and filled, if you wish, with cheese, dried fruits or minced vegetables.

This is a generous restaurant. Most entrees arrive with a pillow of rice, a loose slaw of cabbage and peppers, and a cooked vegetable.

The most refreshing conclusion is pineapple. It’s roasted in the tandoor and presented as caramelized slices on a “bowl” of the fruit. Fresh ginger, lime and brown sugar add to the dessert’s appeal.

There’s no guarantee Jasi will be your server (and some of his colleagues are almost as gracious). But calling ahead of a meal to see if he’s on duty is worth your while. As a guest of mine, clearly captivated by the waiter’s performance, put it, “This guy’s enthusiasm makes the meal taste better.”