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Cafe Spice in Gaithersburg - Mini-review

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Cafe Spice in Gaithersburg - Mini-review

Barry S | Apr 23, 2005 11:47 PM

I don't see any other reviews here, so I'd like to describe my experiences at Cafe Spice in Gaithersburg. Cafe Spice recently opened at the Washingtonian Center/Rio. I'd passed it by on some walks and thought it looked sort of intriguing, but the space it's in was previously inhabited a string of awful restaurants--so I was thing the location was possibly cursed. Well, it seems the curse has been lifted with Cafe Spice. First off, the interior is very nice--hip and more than a little romantic. There's a nice, but small bar to chill out in before your meal and the overall atmosphere is surprisingly cosmopolitan for Gaithersburg. I requested that we be seated in a booth and the hostess graciously offered to let us start off at a table and move to a booth when one opened up, but we decided to just wait for a booth. Good move because we were seated at a booth across from the glass-enclosed kitchen. I'm of two minds about open kitchens--they're fascinating to watch, but sometimes, the noise, heat, and fumes are a bit much. The glass enclosed kitchen at Cafe Spice lets you observe yet keeps the kitchen activity unobtrusive.

There's a small, but reasonably well-chosen list of wines available by the glass. The average prices ranged between $5 and $7 a glass, with a few more expensive options. Considering you can get a fairly nice wine for $5 (e.g. Hogue Johannisberg Riesling) or $6, it seemed like a good value. Not so with the (canned) sodas available for $2.50(!) each.

We didn't order appetizers, but there was a pickled chicken dish that looked incredible--but it'll have to wait for the next visit. I ordered the Tandoori shrimp after spying it being prepared in the kitchen. It consisted of five gloriously large shrimp dusted with spice and infused with nice smoky flavor. Large shrimp can be tastless and mealy, but these were firm-fleshed and flavorful and I nibbled on the thin crunchy shells when the shrimp were gone. The dishes can be ordered as entrees--without any accompaniments, or as a platter.

The platters include jasmine rice, a lentil dish, a potato and pea dish, and some of the most wonderful naan. The naan was meltingly tender and covered with crisp little blisters. It normally comes spread with melted butter, but we requested it plain. The lentil and potato dishs were nice complements and their spicing didn't overpower the flavor of the entree. The only off note was the seemingly undercooked and tough jasmine rice.

My girlfriend ordered the Goan Fish Curry. The curry had nice complexity of flavors, including coconut, but the flavors balanced each other well with no single overpowering notes. The hotness level was pretty solid medium low, so if you like the heat, you'd better request it. The tender white flesh of the fish was cooked perfectly. The curry screamed out for better rice, but fortunately the naan stepped in to save the day. The courses were free of the "oil-slick" that is all too common at inexpensive Indian eateries.

The service was friendly, but not up to professional standards--all too often the case in Gaithersburg. In their defense, it was a busy Friday night with a large party, but still--that's the restaurant business and you need to be prepared to handle routine situations.

Overall, Cafe Spice is a welcome addition to the Gaithersburg restaurant scene and dare I say it--maybe even worth a drive from outside Montgomery County. Traditionally, Indian restaurants have consisted of mostly inexpensive family restaurants with a few high-priced colonial-style high-end choices. Cafe Spice joins the nearby Tandoori Nights staking out a new mid-level that includes hip interiors, small bars, more refined cooking with higher quality ingredients, and even a few western deserts to finish off a meal.

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