Punjab Grill Added to 17° CxNW Recommended Restaurant List

Picture: Burani Palak Paneer

Last Updated: 6/12/2020

Current Status:  Punjab Grill is not able to take advantage of its opulent decor, but it is doing take-out and delivery, including grocery items.  They have also opened up patio seating for sit-down service.

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Before Times Review:

First Visit: April 2019

A few years back there was a wonderful, high-end Italian dining restaurant called Elisir at this same address.  It aspired to sophisticated fine dining that would draw in customers from far and wide.  But the spot is funny, and diners are fickle (the old Ten Penh spot is better suited for this kind of thing).  Elisir downshifted to a less formal format to stave off death, but it was not enough.  I managed to get in one memorable visit there before it succumbed. Punjab Grill is an eerily worthy successor.  It is aspiring to opulent fine dining.  The owner says he wants the restaurant to be not thought of as just “Indian fine dining” but as “fine-dining, period.”  Visually, it is making a strong claim to that category.  It is packed with decorative touches – marble, mirrors, gold – that overwhelm the eye.  Many dishes are designed as Instagram bait – including the gold leaf over the leg of lamb ($38).  On the PR front, Punjab Grill is doing much better than Elisir to create a buzz.  My fear is that to be successful, this place will have to be more than just attractive, it has to be compelling.  Measured against the mean, it does very well.  Measured against the price point, and where it needs to be to meet its own aspirations, it is not quite hitting the mark.  It is recommended with caveats.

The food is very good, but often lacks a clarity of flavor that turns the subtle into the sublime.  The Burani Palak Paneer is a very large chunk of cheese in a shallow pool of pureed spinach for $28.  It upends expectations, and the paneer cheese is tasty.  The quibble is the spinach is pureed so fine and the paneer is such a large block that the dish loses its balance.  The Goat Dum Biryani, also $28, is well-seasoned with just enough spice to be interesting.  It is served with a dramatic flair: the baked dough cover is cut away from the glass jar container at the table.  The goat pieces are large and plentiful.  I enjoyed the dish but wonder whether people will pay $30 for rice and goat? The best dish tried was the Gol Gappa, bite-sized puffs with avocado filling that are topped with either raspberries or passion fruit “water spheres.”  Not only was it visually compelling, it was a mix of flavors and textures that played against and with each other in a single bite.  If there is one dish that highlights the potential of this restaurant, this was it.  Most of the other dishes tried were good to excellent, but not as memorable.

While the kitchen has potential to meet elite requirements, the service is struggling.  Such a grand setting creates expectations of being taken into a warm, comforting atmosphere.  Fiola, Corduroy, or Marcel’s come to mind as comparisons.  While the staff is friendly, you get the sense they are barely keeping their heads above water.  Far from anticipating needs, multiple gestures by customers to the staff were required to keep things on track.  The server was stretched thin, and the runners unprepared to do anything but run dishes.  For all the attention paid to uniforms and setting, it seems they need to invest some more on training.  Although this take is based on one visit, at a minimum it suggests uneven performance.  If it was not aspiring to top-tier fine dining this could be overlooked, but the service is far from ballet-like.  The cocktails are interesting and pleasing.  The wine list is deep, but leans expensive.

If it is in your budget range, Punjab Grill is worth trying out.  The dishes are promising.  If they can address some of the service problems, the whole experience might meet the great expectations.  I sometimes (gently) jibe at the Trabocchis for their over-the-top style at restaurants like Fiola Mare and Del Mar, but few can disagree that they understand how to deliver a compelling experience.  Punjab Grill is not at that level yet.  A spate of early, positive press should sustain it for a while, but it needs to up its game quickly or risk going the way of Elisir.

Rating: Worth Trying Out
Cuisine: Indian
Neighborhood:  Downtown
Address: 427 11th St NW, Washington, DC 20004
Website: https://www.punjabgrilldc.com/
Reservations: Opentable on website

Other Critics/Voices:

Tom: Positive First Bite and put it on his Spring Dining Guide Top 10.

Washingtonian: #69 in 2020 Top 100. Preview

DonRockwell.com

Eater: Preview

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