Agni South Indian Cuisine review: This Sterling spot makes sense with spices
Take my first encounter with Agni South Indian Cuisine in Sterling, about 45 minutes from downtown Washington. I had heard good things about the restaurant and was hoping to land some cash, if not gold. When I showed up on a recent Friday at noon, however, I found the door locked and a seemingly empty dining room. A call to the restaurant went unanswered, so I went to the pizzeria next door and asked the man behind the counter if he knew anything about his competitor’s status. The guy just shrugged. I returned to Agni, where I noticed flasks of water on the tables, so I knocked on the door. This time a waiter with a shy smile emerged from the back, unlocked the door and told me and a hungry companion to choose our own table.
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Immediately, I felt better about my recon mission. Agni passed my sniff test; pleasant cooking aromas emanated from the kitchen. The dining room has also shown some attention. Thick wooden tables and sturdy chairs provided a rustic touch, contrasting with a mango-colored bar and a striking design on the right wall: dozens of little angular dancers, painted black and arranged like musical notes. As we gained confidence in the display case, the single waiter handed out menus and plastic markers to circle what we wanted.
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It’s been a rough road for Mahreen Aujla since she bought the space in February 2020, a month before the pandemic hit, and a family member suffered a debilitating stroke that summer. Agni is Aujla’s first restaurant but not his first business. Back in her native India, where she lived in Chandigarh, the capital of the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, Aujla had her own ceramic business. Buying a restaurant was her attempt to elevate the Indian dining scene in Northern Virginia, where she has lived since 2001 and also works as an IT consultant.
“I’m very picky about my food,” says Aujla.
The same goes for Arivazhagan “Ari” Periyasamy, the chef recommended by the previous chef, who returned to India. Periyasamy hails from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, studied cooking in Pondicherry and worked in hotels for six years, including the Chennai and Goa branches of the luxurious Leela Palace. He then worked in the cruise industry for Carnival Pride, where he helped prepare meals for between 3,000 and 5,000 people a day. Before coming to Agni, Periyasamy, 33, cooked South Indian dishes at Chennai Express in Chantilly.
Her pakora arrives, and it’s terrific, wispy strings of onion whose coat of chickpea flour is lit with green chilies, curry leaves and ginger. The sweet-spicy snack is also lovely, served in newspaper in a little cone that doubles as table decoration for the minute or two it lasts before two of us knock it away. And to think my buddy and I were plotting a plan B when we showed up at the locked gates of Agni!
We would also have missed the mirchi bajji, fried breaded jalapeños, a popular South Indian street food whose puffy golden jackets, made with chickpea flour, dampen the heat of the filling, which includes onions sliced and (optional) roasted peanuts mixed with cilantro and lime. The yellow confetti on top are sev, crushed noodle pieces made from chickpea flour.
The assertive heat of some of my favorite dishes is predicted in the name of the restaurant. Agni means “fire” in Hindi. But the kitchen flambés judiciously. Ask for the Apollo fish — and you should — and you can taste the fried tilapia and peppers, their flavors still clear after being tossed in yogurt loaded with red and yellow turmeric peppers.
Dosas float through the dining room, an edible parade of crisp pancakes rolled up like rolls and escorted by a trio of accessories: pale green coconut chutney, sunny tomato chutney and sambar, vegetable stew with lentils. The lightness of steamed fermented rice cakes, or idlis, shows why they are so popular for breakfast and for grazing; fat in the center and tapered at the ends, flying saucer shapes are best submerged in a steaming bowl of tangy sambar.
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Okra masala is another fancy meatless dish and an example of how Aujla sometimes gets involved in a recipe. Agni’s crispy fried vegetables are finished with mango powder, the owner’s spicy secret. “I don’t like bland,” she says, careful not to step on the chef’s toes. “She treats me like a brother,” Periyasamy says of her boss.
Appreciation of spices helps to appreciate Agni, which deploys the accents well. The base of the ulli theeyal prawn is made of cumin, fenugreek, onions and others introduced into each other in a hot pan drizzled with sesame oil. The flavors of curry are deep and entrancing.
Chicken dum biryani is served Friday through Sunday only. The labor-intensive dish begins with cooking rice with an A-Z of Indian spices and layering the grains in a sealed pot. (Aluminum foil works for the chef; in southern India, a banana leaf can be pressed into service. In Hyderabad, the home of biryani, bread can seal the deal.) What happens on the table is a mound of chicken-encrusted saffron-tinged rice and guess what makes each bite so memorable. Star anise? Rose water? Yes and yes – and keep eating. Soft, sweet fried onions in the mix make it easy.
To appeal to a wider audience, the restaurant offers a handful of North Indian dishes. They include butter chicken, which originated in Delhi and, given the dairy products lavished there, one of the country’s richest delicacies. Agni’s version balances sweetness with flavor in the sauce, which washes over the tongue like liquid velvet.
Bread is the weak link. You won’t miss the flabby, undercooked garlic naan.
The service is relaxed. On my first visit, I told a stranger to be patient while he waited for someone in charge to greet him and collect his takeaway. More recently, Aujla took charge, followed by an intern. “It’s very difficult to have servers,” she told me later on the phone. “It’s been a struggle.” Like other businesses, restaurants have learned to do whatever it takes to attract labor and keep the lights on. Aujla, usually present on weekends, allows certain members of staff to bring their young charge to the restaurant. (The child in the stroller by a back table seems to be enjoying restaurant life.)
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Hanging near the entrance are framed words of inspiration. One of them says, “Be your own kind of beauty.”
Agni South Indian Cuisine takes the message to heart.
Agni South Indian Cuisine
46005 Regal Plaza, Sterling, Virginia 571-325-2523. agniindiancuisine.com. Open: indoor catering, delivery and take-out meals for breakfast from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday and from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday: Price: Appetizers $7.99 to $18.99 (for mutton), entrees $13.99 to $18.49. Sound check: 70/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; wheelchair-accessible toilets. Pandemic protocols: employees are not required to wear masks, but all are vaccinated.