"The lamb vindaloo, please." No amount of false bravado could disguise the quaver in my voice.
"You're sure?" Waiters almost never ask this.
"Yes. And some naan, please. And another beer." Reinforcements.
"Might I suggest some yogurt sauce as well?" Ordinarily I would have considered this an up-sell and declined. Not tonight.
"Please." The waiter started walking off. "And a mango lassi."
It's tough to describe what I did to myself this past Saturday at Masala Art, the unflinchingly good Indian restaurant in Tenleytown, when I ordered that lamb vindaloo. I'd had it before and actually had been warned off it by a waiter who surmised (not unjustifiably) that the consumption of fiery hot foods wasn't in my genetic make-up. But still, I wasn't prepared.
Eating a superbly spicy dish is sort of like high-altitude mountaineering*: you ascend and descend in stages, acclimating yourself slowly to the changing environment, before making a push for the summit. Masala Art's lamb vindaloo doesn't afford you that luxury. It airlifts you to the peak of Everest, drops you off, and then sets you on fire.
And that would be a huge turn-off if the vindaloo weren't so damn good. Large chunks of wonderfully tender lamb and potatoes immersed in a vinegary tomato-based sauce that bears a hue of red normally reserved for fire engines and volcanism. It comes garnished with a slice of jalapeño, presumably to provide irony. Each bite requires a hunk of naan, a swig of beer, and a mouthful of lassi before proceeding to the next.
After a few bites, the waiter came back to check on my progress. I gasped a heartfelt "very good" before realizing that it actually hurt to talk, so I flashed an enthusiastic thumbs up and he strolled off none too assured of my safety. Perhaps out of empathy, Mrs. Culinarian asked to try a bit of lamb, and winced as she hastily chewed.
The rest of the meal is kind of a blur. There was some cardamom ice cream that was epically good, and kheer that set a new standard for rice pudding, but the heat just wouldn't subside. I recall gargling with yogurt and the mixture of pity and spite on the faces of nearby diners.
After Mrs. Culinarian and I finished and settled up, I stumbled out onto Wisconsin Ave., the chill February air battling against the capsaicin that was oozing from my pores. In the spice-induced haze, I found myself wondering when we could make it back, and if I would order the vindaloo again.
Maybe. I give it 50/50.
*Disclaimer: My knowledge of high-altitude mountaineering is informed by precisely zero seconds of experience.