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Aug 26, 2009 09:57 AM

"Balti" Style Curry in the D. C. area?

I just returned from a business trip to Manchester, UK. In past years I've been fortunate to do my best to eat my way through London and Manchester's better curry houses along with the two Michelin star Vineet Bhatia which some consider the most imaginative Indian restaurant in the world.

I found a restaurant in Manchester, Akbar's, ( ) which I liked so much I went three nights in a row including two for business. Whether Indian, Pakistani or Balti it is the best curry as well as the best Indian I have ever had along with lamb chops that I would rank as a signature dish in even, say, Komi. Several curries ( chicken and chili Balti and bindi and tomato Balti) were absolutely incendiary! But flavorfully incendiary, just layers of flavor within the heat-whole inch and a half long peppers were cooked into this, by the way. I have never had anything like this in the U. S.-certainly there is nothing here that even approaches this. Not Rasika, not the Oval Room, Hertiage India or anywhere else I've been. Akbar's was superb for more than just the curries, however: incredible 18" hanging, puffy Nan oozing slivers of garlic (the nan was "impaled" on a metal hook as the centerpiece of the table), King Prawn Tikka that found the prawns coated and marinated in coriander and spice then charcoal grilled as well as a kind of Indian "chicken enchilada" covered with melted cheese and a tomato based spice and coriander sauce, "chicken Nambali." I should also note that Balti curries are served in eight or nine inch black cast iron skillets still hot from the flame.

Akbar's is considered by many to be Manchester's best "Indian" style restaurant along with one of the absolute best in the U. K. It is considered by everyone to be the best Balti restaurant in all of the U. K. They are also certainly not immodest: on their home page they note "probably the best Indian restaurant in the North of England." Does anyone know of any restaurant in the Baltimore Washington area that serves Balti curries?

My guess is that even if I find this style here it won't approach Akbar's. Still, I want to try. I haven't eaten at the same restaurant three nights in a row in over 20 years! This was so good that I would go back tonight if I was still there!

A bit of information about Balti food:

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  1. Joe, I suggest you contact chef Sudhir Seth.

    1. Angeethi (Herndon and Bethesda) has Balti dishes on its menu. I think there have been mixed reports.

      1. No specific recs, but it might be worth checking with some of the better "regular" Indian restaurants. Just as the local Chinese places seem reluctant to put "real" Chinese on the menu or recommend it to non-Asians, it's at least possible that there may be chefs in the area who can cook Balti, where the restaurant may have made a decision that this style of Indian food would be too far out of the "normal" Indian genre for them to put it on the menu.

        It may be that somebody in the community of Indian restaurant owners and staff might know who in the area has a chef with the right background, and may point you to a restaurant that can meet your needs on a "special order" basis, even if it's not on the menu.

        The tip by another poster about a specific chef might be one such link.

        Of course, the risk is that you may get a place that will tell you they can do it, thinking that you won't know the difference even if their chef has no clue.

        Good luck, and if you find a good place, please post. This sounds like agenre that the rest of us might like to taste and support.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Warthog

          Thank you for the recommendations. I did not know about Angeethi although we have been once and enjoyed it. Of course what I ordered that night was entirely different from what I'll look for this time. I was also, then, just looking for "neighborhood" Indian not "transformative, life changing" flavor like Akbar's.

          But I will try it. This weekend in fact!

          Eric, Warthog thank you for your suggestions. I'll also follow up with Chef Sudhir. It will be interesting if he has experience with this. Warthog's point is also well taken: if he doesn't, he may know where to point me. Thanks again.

          It is interesting to read about the development and spread of Balti Indian in the U. K. from the link I posted above. It seems that I accidentally stumbled into what may one of the hottest restaurant trends there that is rapidly spreading around the country. If a place that even approaches the level of Akbar's were to open here I would have to believe that there is a huge market for it.

          I wonder what Angeethi's lamb chops taste like?

          1. re: Joe H

            Just promise us that if there's a Balti "secret menu" someplace in the area, you'll let us in on it!

          2. re: Warthog

            Balti isn't "real" Indian, though. It's an invention of the UK indo-pak expat community--most Indians in India that I know wouldn't know a balti curry if you served it to them--and so unless the chef was from the UK, it's unlikely they'd be able to make one.

            Also, you should know that there's a lot of variety in what's considered a balti curry. Balti itself just refers to the pot it's served in; you can have spicy baltis, mild ones, etc. You may want to check out Pakistani places, though, that serve karahi dishes--a karahi (also named for the basically identical flat-bottomed wok that it's served in) is a lot like a mild balti.

            1. re: sweth

              The link supplied above at the end of my post is an excellent one. Included is this statement:

              "Balti is a type of Kashmiri curry whose origins go back centuries in
              the area which is now northern Pakistan. Balti refers both to its
              area of origin and the dish in which the food is cooked and served to
              the table. Known also as the Karahi, the Balti pan is a round
              bottomed, wok like, heavy cast iron dish with two handles. The food
              served in the Balti pan are freshly cooked aromatically spiced
              curries. Balti food at its best is very aromatic, but not excessively
              spiked with chillies. Traditionally it is eaten without rice or
              cutlery. Balti bread is used to scoop up the food, using the right
              hand only.
              The origins of Balti cooking are wide-ranging and owe as much to
              China (with a slight resemblance to the spicy cooking of Szechuan)
              and Tibet as to the tribal ancestry of the nomad, the tastes of the
              moghul emperors, the aromatic spices of Kashmir, and the 'winter
              foods' of lands high in the mountains. Balti food is both simple in
              its concept and cooking, and complex in its flavours. True Balti food
              is dryish and slightly oily and spicily tasty. The modern British
              Balti house has retained the traditional concepts, and has widened
              the range of Balti to encompass many favourite curries which have
              never been heard of in Baltistan.

              1. re: Joe H

                From your descriptions, the Karahi at Labab & Kahari on New Hmmpshire in Cloverly seems to serve that. Their Kaharis are cooked in a dark steel rounded pot. THey layer in the meat of choice, onions, ginger, lots of various kinds of greens, spices galore and a slug of oil. It is then placed in a hor oven untilt he dish is fully cooked and the sauce very thick with an avoidable slick of oil. There is a spice blend sprinkled in at some point and htis takes the hot factor for a nice bite to incnediary.

                But this place is just what it is, a hole in the wall (and thanks to the MoCo health departments, a pristinly cleanabnle hole in the wall filed with children, cab drivers and others gladly chowing down on good food. They are open till midnight and 1am on Friday & Saturday.

                1. re: deangold

                  A Cloverly "hole in the wall" is fine, Dean. I lived in Hillendale for almost 20 years and welcome the opportunity to check it out. Of course, now I will be driving from Reston but for years-many years-I would drive to Cloverly from about five miles south in Hillendale.

                  If I can find what I had at Akbar's in the D. C. area this board will never hear the end of it!!!! But, if I can't-and I must note that I don't expect to-there will be a passion on my part to find someone who can introduce this food to the D. C. area. It is truly special.

          3. I've been to Ageenthi in Herndon and tried a vegetable Balti. Served in a copper pot. Very pretty presentation, but it seemed the pot was a gimmick. It was ok. I doubt it approaches what you experienced.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Steve

              Akbar presented the curries in the black cast iron skillet they were actually cooked in. I am also guessing that similar to, say, frying chicken or pork chops in a seasoned skillet that has never seen soap there is a flavor that the skillet imparts also. It was an interesting presentation.

              1. re: Joe H

                I'm pretty sure that the Ageenthi version is transferred to the copper pot, not cooked in the pot. Sounds like the iron skillet version is much better.

            2. Joe,

              Any status updates on your search? This sounds like a cuisine many of us would enjoy sampling, and I'm curious if you've managed to find an acceptable rendition in the area or any place else on this side of the Atlantic.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Warthog

                Thanks for asking, Warthog, but I've found nothing that even approached what I had in Manchester.