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Curry Mantra's Asad Sheikh on his Virginia Empire

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Photo: R. Lopez

Monday was a party, appropriately, to mark the opening of a restaurant that's centered on festivals and parties. Curry Mantra 3 wraps up Asad Sheikh's trilogy, the third in his line of Northern Virginia culinary ventures. This time the Indian eatery, which opened this week, is in Vienna and has a slightly different spin — foods used to commemorate celebrations in his homeland. Sheikh talked to Eater about his previous incarnations of Curry Mantra and his race to open even more in the region and beyond.

Curry Mantra 2 only opened in February. What was the hurry to open another restaurant already?
Well, three years ago I opened the first Curry Mantra in the city of Fairfax. When we opened it had 50 [seats]. But the demand was so huge for locals that we had line after line constantly. So I wanted to expand it to 125 [seats]. And we were still busy. Falls Church is a location I always wanted to be in because I live there and there's loyal clientele.
The second Curry Mantra (in Falls Church City) has an open kitchen. I wanted to give a different experience to my guests. That location's also getting busy now, and I have some plans to expand it too. For the third, it's the same local type of community that's very supportive like in Fairfax only in the heart of Vienna. I'm also aiming to give something different than the others.

So Curry Mantra 3 is different how?
The menu is designed toward Indian festivals. They're dishes eaten during festivals that take place throughout the whole country. It has 50 [seats] and we're expanding to 100 soon. As far as why open several near each other we wanted to provide different things are each restaurant. Most of our clients are Americans, so we design it toward American tastes, not making the food too spicy.
At Curry Mantra 3 the service is a little more formal, upscale. The look is white marble décor and the pictures are all about Indian festivals. You will see Mother Teresa and other very well-known figures. (Curry Mantra) 1's very orange and red in color and also has the look of the Taj Mahal. Two is defined by the open kitchen.

Talk a little bit about some of these festivals and the dishes that they originate from. What are a few that stand out to you?
In Hindu we have different festivals. Diwali is the festival of fireworks. During this period they eat vegetarian during that week or that month. So we have a vegetarian platter with four or five different vegetarian curies? There's also a place called Goa. It's a small island in India. During Christmas – it's an island with mostly Christians – they eat mostly lamb during the festival. For them we have some lamb tikka masala with a really rich and creamy gravy.
During the Muslim festival Eid they eat this meatball Kofta, and that's with lamb and a gravy of cilantro and pistachios. These are the dishes I came up with for Americans that are similar to the dishes in India.

You mentioned that most of your customers are Americans. What do you want them to learn about Indian food and culture?
Everybody else offers food, but at Curry Mantra you will be exposed to more than that. We want to give you some knowledge and some interesting things about India too.
In Fairfax on weekends we have classic Indian music live. We get very busy every weekend because people want to know about this music.
At (Curry Mantra) 3 you'll leave knowing a lot more about Indian festivals. Two is all about spices, because it's an open kitchen. They can talk with the chef. The chef can even give them lessons about how to make naan bread.

The grand plan for Curry Mantra is to have how many restaurants, and is there such a thing as too many?
The projection for 2014 is to open two more. One is in Alexandria and the other is in Prince William, because I want to give them the experience that we have so far in these other communities. I want to have 10 in Northern Virginia eventually. I plan to keep opening up in Northern Virginia, not in D.C.

Why Northern Virginia and not the District?

There's very, very high rent in D.C. It's also very hard to survive in D.C. If I were in D.C. I'd have to spend double the rent as I am now. In Virginia, too, we have very good clientele. And in D.C. there's already Rasika and Bombay, restaurants by Ashok Bajaj. I want to be like him but the Virginia version. I get inspired by him a lot and try to follow in his footsteps.

Tell me about your background. What were you doing before Curry Mantra?
Before, I was in franchises. Quiznos, Dunkin' Donuts. So some of the experience of that, the managing part, the marketing carries over now. And I was born and raised in India as well. When you talk about Indian restaurants everybody offers cuisines from the North and the South. But there were so many other cuisines no one had explored, so I wanted to show different regions. With the franchise experience that I have, I would love to see Curry Mantra become a franchise all over the country.

Ok, the "Curry" part of the name seems obvious, but what's the significance of the "Mantra" part?
The mantra part of it, well, mantra has different meanings. We use mantra to mean magic, so "Curry Magic." You have your own mantra of curries, a secret formula or magic. And of course at every Curry Mantra we want to show that.
—Dena Levitz
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Curry Mantra 3

262 H Cedar Lane, Vienna, Va.