In Saffron Dreams of Agni South Indian Cuisine
To hear Sri, owner of Agni South Indian Cuisine in Sterling, VA, tell the dramatic story of her restaurant’s birthing, is to hear first-hand the agony, ecstasy and eye opening education that supercharged a passionate endeavor into the challenging food industry. Consider Sri’s grand idea to create a neighborhood flyer announcing a friendly sale from her suburban driveway of homemade Dosa made with her grandmother’s recipe. The event drew 500 Facebook “likes” as well as crowds of friends, neighbors and friends of neighbors’ friends in unanticipated numbers. Among the revelers were officials from Loudoun County asking “What are you doing here?”
Now Sri’s education begins. What she intended would flow like a lemonade stand was functioning more like a home-based business and that meant meeting regulations the County couldn’t live without but that Sri couldn’t live with.The only logical path for her dream of bringing her native cuisine to Loudoun was to open a restaurant. At the start, Sri’s husband, Niranjan was a vocal skeptic. But when Sri promptly packed up and quit her job of twelve years as a Software Engineer and committed to a restaurant space, Niranjan was stunned to jaw dropping awe. His wife, with no related experience, no culinary education and only a go-with-gut driving passion had plowed into the unknown. That was two years ago. Sri says she has since changed her perspective on the difficulty of such an undertaking, admitting that she may have underestimated the process. Still, the fact is that in two years, Sri thrust her dream into motion. And with her valued team, she builds on.
Both Sri and Niranjan grew up in Chennai, a nearly 400 year old city of cultural, economic and educational significance in southeastern India, the second largest financial hub after Mumbai. From the cuisine of Chennai, on the shoreline of the Bay of Bengal just north of Sri Lanka, is where Sri and her team draw their menu offerings.
Agni’s menu isn’t a typical Indian menu. The selections are categorized for clarity. Available are vegetarian and non vegetarian options as well as gluten free. Cilantro is plentiful and Agni mixes their own spices. Meats are lamb, goat, and chicken. Various types of curries are prepared daily. Niranjan’s favorite is the Curry Leaf Chicken, a less saucy curry. Guests, he says, often choose Malli Chicken Curry with a strong flavor of cilantro. The foundation of much of the diet in India is lentils and from the lentil comes Dosa, a crepe-like dough made of lentils and rice, cooked by skilled swirl in various sized skillets from small to monstrous, eaten plain or flavored with spicy chutney or lamb curry. Dosa is available with fillings like potato masala or minced meat cooked with spices and can be coated with chutney, cracked egg, spinach or nothing at all. During our visit, Sri presented us with a perfectly ringed and loosely rolled foot long Dosa from which we tore chunks for dipping into a variety of curries, masala and chutney. This same lentil and rice based dough can be steamed and will arrive puffier, round, soft, light in color. Thali is a popular dish at Agni an excellent choice to allow sampling of various dishes and comes with rice and bread. For example, one day’s Thali with plain dosa might arrive with a tasty broth soup,a chicken or lamb curry, a chutney, a chicken appetizer, a sweet dessert and more. All bottomless but only at lunch.
The Agni dining room is dressed with saffron walls and a hand chalked stress-buster bar wall design by Sri worthy of fabric printing. Each table holds a different tiny wooden common scene of daily Indian life. Three paintings of the faces of women are framed on the side wall and opposite, a cut out paper design of tiny figures coiling in a chain round and round and starting again. Everything about Agni calls up, without distraction, one woman’s dogged pursuit of what gives her joy and what she endeavors to share with those of us who reach back.
Agni South Indian Cuisine, 46005 Regal Plaza, Suite 140,Sterling, VA 20165. Hours: Lunch on Tues-Fri 11:30-2:30, Sat and Sun 11:30 am-3pm and Dinner Tues-Thur, Sun 5r:30-9:30 and Fri, Sat 5r:30-10:30. Closed Monday. Catering Available, firstname.lastname@example.org,571-325-2523