Sitting smug in the middle of Old Town Alexandria (Virginia), Kismet Modern Indian was recently ranked No. 4 in The Washington Post’s Top 5 New Favourite restaurants; its sister restaurant Karma in Washington DC made the Michelin Guide with a Bib Gourmand recognition for the second year.
When The Washington Post’s food critic Tom Sietsema dishes his favourite restaurant list, gourmands — and the food world — sit up and take notice. So, when Sietsema listed Kismet Modern Indian restaurant as No. 4 in his Top 5 New Favourite restaurants, the tony old town of Alexandria (Virginia, USA) climbed a few notches up the best-food hierarchy. “At Kismet Modern Indian, the chef realises that you eat first with your eyes. The food tastes great, too. The chef is an actual artist — and the plates show it,” Sietsema wrote of Chef Ajay Kumar.
After an unending flight into Washington DC, I walked into the 4,000 sq ft restaurant even before checking into the hotel. It wasn’t hunger, I was abundantly curious about the chef who loves Claude Monet, the French painter, and cardamom, the spice. Cardamom was plausible but I have not met chefs who talk Monet and spices in the same breath. Chef Ajay Kumar does. Not only can he rustle up a tangy sweet potato aperitif but he can also paint deft strokes of lilac on canvas. On busy days, he cooks in the kitchens of Kismet Modern Indian and its sister restaurant Karma (Washington DC); on lazy nights he picks oils and acrylics to paint abstracts and landscapes in the basement of his home. Chef Ajay Kumar is an award-winning chef and a brill painter.
The art is evident. And how! Evenly diced sweet potatoes acquire the burnished tinge of the setting sun surrounded by colourful flecks of sauce; a slice of dried lemon floats in an orange drink; prawns sit with curled tails in a garden of micro greens; a dish topped with chickpeas is hemmed within a circle of mottled brown; and the jhaal muri is packed in pretty paper cones.
“We eat with our eyes first. So, what we see on the plate should evoke an emotional response the same way that sensational food does when we taste,” Chef Kumar explains and adds that in his restaurants each dish is designed with plating in mind. That art on the plate remains the primary focus for the man who worked as a chef in New Delhi for over 15 years before emigrating to the United States in 2003. He honed his craft at Indian restaurants in Northern Virginia and developed a reputation representing one of the best Indian caterers in the Metropolitan area.
Kismet Modern Indian is professedly Indian. There are the obvious: kebab, malai chicken, Mumbai sliders, chicken tikka masala, lamb ghee roast, Kashmiri chicken gushtaba, paneer kadai, cauliflower kofta, Hyderabadi dum biryani, palak paneer, garlic naan, dal makhani. However, what makes the conspicuous noteworthy is, as Chef Kumar puts it, the use of fresh ingredients and everything made from scratch in-house. He toasts and grinds all the spices in-house, a rarity in today’s world of prepackaged ingredients.
“Favourites, such as naan bread, palak paneer, and lamb seekh kebab are the foundation of our menu. Whether you are looking for a classic dish such as chicken tikka, or one of our new creations, like red snapper peri-peri, our primary aim is to make Indian food more approachable,” adds Chef Kumar who lists Turnip Goat, Methi Malai Matar, and Malai Shrimp Curry as his go-to comfort foods.
“Karma is more upscale in experience and there is more focus on exploring new ideas/dishes that are upscale while Kismet is more a neighbourhood restaurant,” says Sachin Mahajan, co-owner of Kismet Modern Indian.
Interestingly, the Kismet menu also has a spice ready-reckoner with their health benefits — curry leaves can aid in indigestion, fenugreek decreases body fat and cholesterol, mace is good for joint pain, star anise can help treat sleep disorders, sandalwood is a great anti-viral and anti-inflammatory agent.
Kismet is housed in a 4,000-square-foot space that earlier was home to a Burger Fi until 2017. Designed by A-Line Architecture’s Anila Angeli, the restaurant includes a courtyard patio and outdoor seating for 35, along with seating for 85 in the main dining room. The space retains some of its industrial look but has a shelf at the entrance with flowers, vases, books. There’s a wall of candles and paintings on the wall — none painted by Chef Kumar.
Midnight blue melds with ruddy reds in the interior and the bar is perched on a mosaic-tiled, elevated space. The bar menu is sub-headed as Manifestations (Lion’s paw, Leap of Faith, Evening Chill, Forever); Reflections (Sbagliato Bianco, Sazerac, Super-nova g&t, Pennicillin); Beer (from Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Virginia, Maryland); & Wine by the Glass (from Italy, France, New Zealand, California). For the teetotallers, there’s Nearly There (blood orange, mint, rose syrup) and Familiar Faces (hibiscus allspice syrup, lime juice, ginger beer, sushi ginger). For an extra $5, you can add rum to Nearly There and gin to Familiar Faces.
In 1905 when someone asked Claude Monet about the colours he used, the painter replied, “I use flake white, cadmium yellow, vermillion, deep madder, cobalt blue, emerald green, and that’s all.” I know nothing about the colours of Chef Ajay Kumar’s abstracts and landscapes, what I know is that his food plates are arty and pretty.
Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Max: 5 stars)
Vibe: Indian in a modern industrial-chic setting
One dish we loved: Tangy sweet potato; it is also the restaurant’s most popular dish
One thing that didn’t work for us: Not for the late-eaters, the kitchen shuts at 9 pm
Good to know:
Kismet Modern Indian, 11 North Pitt Street, Alexandria (Virginia)
Timings: Open for lunch and dinner. Closed: Monday & Tuesday
Phone: +1 703.567.4507
Booking: You can book tables on the restaurant’s website.