White Tiger: Authentic Indian cuisine on the Hill

After spending a month in India in December, I was eager to try to one of the best-known Indian restaurants in Washington. And what I found at the White Tiger was an experience like nothing I found on my travels — but an authentic taste of India nonetheless.

The White Tiger misses few authentic details: Instead of pastel-colored butter mints, the restaurant offers traditional chewing spices to freshen the breath. And the courses of the meal are served in assorted serving dishes on a large silver thali — the better to eat from with only a piece of flatbread, called naan. Silverware was available, but my guest and I favored the delicious leavened, bleach flour bread.

And the aroma, when you first walk in, is like walking into an Indian kitchen where a dozen women are preparing for a wedding.

The waitservice, entirely Indian, was diligent and serious. Waiters would speak if spoken to, and brought the food out promptly, but not too promptly. When I left without my doggie bag, the waiter bounded into the swirling snow outside the restaurant to deliver it.

The Tiger, which is at Massachusetts Avenue and Second Street N.W., has found a near perfect balance between offering an authentic product, but tempering it just enough so that diners aren’t turned off.

My companion and I watched as one cultural exchange went predictably badly: A jowly bureaucrat-type berated the young Indian waiter for what must have turned out to be a poor wine recommendation — something he badgered the waiter to make in the first place. Indian food is not traditionally eaten with wine, but the Tiger has an extensive bar nonetheless.

I happily ordered a Kingfisher beer that’s been brewed in Bangalore in India since 1857. It’s the same lemony lager I’d run across in a Bombay pub packed with thirsty, non-Indian backpackers and a few Indian youths who were on a secret date.
But I couldn’t help being shocked by the sheer richness of the food, something that stood out as one of the handful of ways the Tiger seemed to cater to a Western clientele.

With red and gold fabric draped from the ceiling the White Tiger is simply sumptuous — very different from my winter trip to my father’s North Indian birthplace, Khirgaon, which took 40 years to grow into a village of 1,500 people. In Khirgaon, we ate sustenance food of vegetables only — coarse barley bhajis and coarser naans. But the Tiger is a Bombayite’s delight: decadent lamb and complex curry concoctions.

As the evening progressed, the restaurant lights softened, but it was hardly the same dim I experienced in Khirgaon, sitting on the cool floor next to the blaze of a kerosene lantern in the shadows of relatives in a clay-packed home.

Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her predecessor, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), have thrown private parties at the elegant two-story restaurant.

The White Tiger also draws Indian dignitaries such as ambassador Lalit Mansingh, whose welcome party was held at the White Tiger, former ambassador Naresh Chandra, Indian Finance Minister Yashwant Singha, a host of Indian state ministers, and many officials of the Indian Embassy.

Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and retired Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) have also frequented the Tiger.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) have also traversed the Hill to feast on the Senate side’s most exotic food.

In early April, 31-year-old Bobby Jindal, a Republican candidate — and also an Indian American — in Louisiana’s crowded gubernatorial primary held a cocktail party fundraiser at the Tiger. A Rhodes scholar and former staffer to Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), Jindal invited mostly young professionals in the District, but Rep. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonDems target Trump administration's use of military planes in defense bill debate Trump's effort to secure the border is making America safe again Legal immigrants can commend Trump on his efforts to end illegal immigration MORE (R-S.C.) showed up briefly.

My friend and I started off with the shammi kabab for $5.95, which are grilled lamb mince patties with onions, lentils, garlic, egg, nutmeg, mace and coriander. They were excellent with just enough spices, but not too hot. On my travels in Bhopal, Agra, Bombay, Indore and rural Khirgaon, I did not taste a morsel of meat.

We also tried the paneer tikka achari for $5.25, which were chunks of farmer cheese with pickle. They were tasty and unlike any cheese congressional staffers are likely to recognize. But the cheese cubes were also slightly overcooked, giving them a dry tofu-like consistency. The brown and green dipping sauces saved them.

The murg malabar curry, chicken in a clay-colored curried sauce with whole coriander and coconut cream was too rich and a little bland. I have never had such a heavy curry before, and it smothered the perfectly juicy chicken. For $12.95, however, one couldn’t complain too much.

The mughalai saag, lamb cubes cooked in curried spinach was one of the highlights of the meal. The price was a reasonable $13.95. And the basmati rice cooked with peas and corn was a perfect complement.

The bottom line is: The White Tiger offers a taste of India that is thoroughly enjoyable and delicious.

The White Tiger, 301 Massachusetts Ave. N.E. (202) 546-5900.
Hours: Monday through Thursday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.