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Wait for Good, local Indian food is over

By Enva Trenis

Fredericksburg's pent-up demand had folks lining up at Guru Indian Cuisine in Central Park as soon as it opened in mid-November. But the restaurant's attention to quality and flavor probably will keep customers coming back.

Until recently, Fredericksburg Indophiles had to drive to Richmond or Northern Virginia to get their curry fix. A popular destination was Taste of Tandoor in Woodbridge.

Customers asked Taste of Tandoor owner Devainder Mathur to open a restaurant in the Pear City. Those requests, coupled with The Free Lance-Star's report that readers wanted an Indian restaurant here, persuaded Mathur to open Guru.

Mathur, a native of New Delhi, learned to cook at his mother's knee and he is exacting with spices and timing.

On a lunch visit, I found the most delightful okra (bhindi masala, $9) as part of the lunch buffet. Mathur told me it was the first dish he learned from his mother when he was in fifth grade. In loving detail, he explained the method of making the okra tender and flavorful without a trace of slime. Card-carrying okra haters at my table went back for seconds.

How well a restaurant prepares vegetables is a good indicator of the skill of the chef, and Guru gets high marks. The lunch buffet features only one type of meat - chicken - but usually has three vegetable dishes: tasty spiced potatoes (aloo masala, $8); lentil stew (traditional dal); and a third that varies by the day and the hour.

Some vegetable favorites are the roasted, delicately spiced eggplant and the creamy spinach with fresh, homemade cheese bits (palak paneer, $9). Lunch customers may have the limited buffet, or they may order form the menu. Mathur said that he plans to implement specially priced lunch menus in February. He also hopes to expand Guru into the adjoining space at the time.

Now the restaurant is small, with an intimate, comfortable atmosphere. The textured burnt-orange walls and burgundy ceiling, gentle lighting and sound of water trickling over a rock fountain make the place cozy.

Some waiters at Guru deliver food and suggestions with confidence, but others are hesitant and unsure of their duties. Since Mathur is an almost constant presence in the dining room, training waiters and attending to customers, I predict that these wrinkles will smooth out with time.

And even the greenest waiter is welcome when he brings hot, flaky naan from the tandoori oven. Or perfectly tender lamb kabobs. Or silky yogurt-marinated chicken breast. Can't decide among the seven tandoori offerings? Try the mixed grill ($13) with lamb, chicken and two gigantic, toothsome shrimp.

Guru serves entrées with fragrant basmati rice. Diners may order any of six freshly baked tandoori breads ($1.50-$2.50), toasted cumin-scented yogurt raita ($2), spicy coriander chutney or sweet mango chutney ($2).

Guru makes a variety of curried dished with lamb, salmon, shrimp or chicken. Guru's korma dishes are mild and creamy, Goa shrimp masala ($15) has a velvety coconut-milk and ginger sauce, and the lamb saag gosht ($10) is a flavorful stew of spinach spiked with whole black cardamom pods.

A vegetarian dish that deserves a mention is the balingan bharta ($9) of baked eggplant, onions, tomatoes and herbs cooked and mashed to a savory stew complex flavors.

Guru brews spiced chai tea ($2) and serves a bottomless cup from the pot. The restaurant also serves wine, liquor and three Indian beers.

Among Guru's traditional desserts the kulfi ($3)--cardamom-laced ice cream made from evaporated milk-stands out.

Though Guru is very early in its run, chef-owner Mathur is overseeing everything with an exacting eye.

And Fredericksburg is so happy to have Guru here that some growing pains are cheerfully overlooked.

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