First came the original Curry Mantra in Fairfax in January 2011. Then two years later, in 2013, in Falls Church came Curry Mantra 2 and, later in the year, Curry Mantra 3 in Vienna.
These are not knockoffs or copycats. Each restaurant has a different look, a different theme, and a different menu.
The original Curry Mantra, now twice its original size, is elegant with vibrant oranges and reds, a Taj Mahal feel and a menu built around the regional dishes, mostly curries, of India, while No. 2 has an open kitchen so diners can watch the chefs at work and No. 3 celebrates India’s many feasts and festivals with their special dishes.
Of course, there are similarities. The price range for all three is moderate and all three have an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet with a variety of dishes from appetizers through desserts for about $10, slightly more on weekends.
Too, all three are located in smaller, slightly off-the-beaten-path, less-than-upscale malls (which must help control operating costs), all three have attentive and knowledgeable service, and all three serve the familiar variety of freshly baked Indian breads--something to watch being made at No. 2’s open kitchen--and some curry dishes, including the vindaloos, tikki masalas and biryanis most familiar to western diners.
But there the similarities end, for these three restaurants provide the opportunity to explore India’s less familiar, to western palates at least, dishes and diverse cuisine. As you peruse the menu(s), look for and ask about the specialty dishes. All three menus have different specials and suggested dishes, which are worth using as a guide. You can also do some all-you-can-eat sampling at each restaurant’s daily lunch buffet.
Curry Mantra No. 1 specializes in regional dishes from northern, eastern, western and south India, and there are major differences in ingredients and spices used. The Bangalore platter with vegetable and dry chicken Chettinad style served in a banana leaf with fresh coconut water comes from south India, while a dish of vegetables cooked with dry roasted spices and coconut milk comes from western India, the Bengal fish curry flavored with mustard seeds and curry leaves from the east, and murgh-e-shaki, chicken stuffed with nuts, saffron and raisins and cooked in a cream sauce typifies dishes from the northern part of the country.
Restaurant No. 2 serves a spectacular appetizer, palak anar, of crisp spinach with tamarind, pomegranate seeds and sweet yogurt, as well as a Kashmiri dish of lamb and fruits, a dish of chicken breast with almonds and cinnamon in a garlic and ginger sauce, and a searingly hot goat vindaloo, just to name a few.
Among its specialties, Curry Mantra No. 3 offers a crispy mango salad with cabbage, crushed peanuts and fried onions and a chicken tikka salad; chicken Malabar with yogurt, coconut and mustard seeds; and a recommended combo plate with chicken tikka, a Boti kebob of lamb seasoned with nutmeg and anise seed gravy, a Malai kabob of chicken cooked garlic and yogurt, and some tandoori shrimp.
With three restaurants up and running in the space of three years, can 4 and 5, and even more, be far behind? The answer is no. Owner Asad Sheikh is already working on 4, 5, and more and has said he plans to keep them in Northern Virginia but moving beyond Fairfax County, which is already well endowed with Curry Mantras.