Dining: Spice Xing: Xcellent Indian newcomer in Rockville

By Bernice August

Photos by Spenser Li/The Gazette

Photos by Spenser Li/The Gazette

As vibrant in décor as in its seasonings, Spice Xing (Spice Crossing) debuted last month in Rockville Town Square. Unlike the highly traditional décor and cuisine of Sudhir Seth's Passage to India in Bethesda, his latest restaurant accents contemporary Indian cuisine with ambiance to match. Upscale casual and family-friendly, this attractive dining destination is most welcome.

A glittering rendition of the Hindu mythological wish-fulfilling tree meets the eye at the entrance. In the dining room, billowing silk swags create a dramatic dropped ceiling, and handcrafted Indian fabric tiles form a patchwork above the long banquette. The room's dark wooden tables, booths and chairs plus the lounge and full-service bar accommodate 118 patrons.

Seth's 34-year career began in the kitchens of India's luxury hotels, where the New Delhi native assisted French superstar Paul Bocuse in introducing nouvelle cuisine to the country. He enhanced his skills in Dubai and Shanghai before taking the helm of Washington's elegant Bombay Club. Ten years ago, he opened his restaurant, Heritage India in D.C., followed a few years later with Passage to India where he showcases India's diverse regional cuisine.

"What holds this diverse cuisine together is the aromatic and flavorful spices. The art of Indian cooking is in blending these spices so they are in perfect harmony in each dish," Seth says.

Colorful, poster-sized photos of those Indian spices adorning a mango-colored wall in the armchair lounge are an apt exclamation point to his remarks.

Giving his imagination free rein, Seth plans to change the menu in Rockville more often than in Bethesda. His partner, Calcutta-born Harvinder (Harry) Sanotra, complements the cuisine with a host of signature cocktails and martinis.

The food at dinner and the daily lunch buffet affirms Seth's mastery and knowledge of the sub-continent's many delights. For starters one night, we enjoy a Bombay street food favorite called pao. These toasted mini rolls with keema, aromatic-spiced meat, exemplify Seth's spice-driven comment. Indian cooking guru Madhur Jaffrey likens keema to chili con carne without the chili. You could think of these little gems as Indian sliders.

Outside forces left their mark on Indian cuisine, and the chef pays them tasty and tasteful tribute. Luscious anise-infused tawa scallops are from French-influenced Pondicherry on South India's east coast. Delicious balchao shrimp packs the chili-vinegar punch of its Portuguese roots. The extraordinary Persian-inspired lamb and apricot stew, salli boti jardaloo, is a triumph of spice blending. That dish, plus the classic garam masala-infused lamb rogan josh and stews like lamb ishtoo and kadhai gosht demonstrate the kitchen's prowess with lamb.

Tandoori chicken gets high grades, as do the Mughlai chicken korma with its rich ground nut sauce, succulent yogurt-marinated chicken malai kabab and chicken hariyali.

Fluffy basmati rice, peas and honey-sweet carrots, and fresh cabbage-carrot slaw accompany the entrées one night.

The daily lunch buffet ($7.95 weekdays, $9.95 weekends) is an easy entry into Spice Xing's infinite variety. A typical table holds several salads, assorted dressings, condiments and chutneys, raita, soup, basmati rice, a couple of chicken and meat dishes, a panoply of vegetable offerings, sambar and dessert.

Encountered at various times: hardboiled egg curry, South Indian yogurt-rice salad, coconut-accented cabbage puriyal, potatoes and eggplant, tadka idli (spiced rice dumplings looking like chunks of fried potatoes), makhi dal, basmati rice with lentils, andra chicken, tadka vegetables, potatoes and beans, corn and spinach, kadhi pakora and rice-lentil fritters. No one does vegetables as well as an Indian kitchen.

Dessert on one occasion is cardamom-scented vermicelli pudding with golden raisins. Another time, it is carrot halwa (Indian carrot pudding not to be confused with the Middle Eastern confection). Fresh fruit salad is a wonderful alternative to these super-sweet Indian desserts.

Service has been mostly attentive and friendly. When friends lamented at dinner that their favorite dishes were not on the menu, they were told to call ahead next time and request them. Now that's accommodating.

Rockville Town Square has ample parking nearby, and the Rockville Metro station is just two blocks.