Ananda’s in Maple Lawn has been around for quite some time now and it opened to much fan fare. How Chow raved about it and the restaurant has even received more national attention for it’s cuisine. But I’ll be honest, for the longest time I was unimpressed with Ananda, the one time I had visited the restaurant I found the food to be lacking any sort of modicum of craveability (is that a word?). I know that sounds harsh, but I just was meh to the entire experience.
That all changed when I visited Ananda recently.
I realized I was eating at Ananda all wrong, what Ananda does very well is that it takes traditional Indian flavors and fuses them with some more Western ingredients to create a fusion that’s both inventive and delicious. And with that morsel of knowledge in hand I had a mind blowing experience at Ananda, so mind-blowing in fact that I want to go back again and again.
But first let’s talk about some of the negatives (there aren’t many but I’d be lying to you if I told you were there were none.)
Ananda is tucked away in Maple Lawn in a standalone building, once you walk inside the restaurant you experience a vibrant bar area that is energetic and warm. The main outdoor seating area is open year round due to the help of overhead coiling doors that come down during the winter to lock in the heat, the temperature in the room leaves you a little bit uncomfortable because they crack open the doors to allow for some cool air to come in. The end result is a bizarre feeling where you’re feet are frozen and your upper torso is fine. Another negative in the ambiance category is the overly dark lighting, I’m all for creating a warm-mood but the dim lighting (specifically in some corners) is downright comical. So much so that folks were using cell phone lights just to read the menu. The service is friendly if not borderline overly friendly, your glass of water faces a nearly night long blitzkrieg of refills, I know that sounds petty but I don’t want to be bombarded by “Excuse me sir” every 5 minutes to refill my water, just leave a bottle of still water or wait till I ask to refill the water. Meanwhile the wait staff is slightly too effusive in their love for the menu, I get it, you want to show enthusiasm. But when your diners think you’re in a 3-Act Play about the Ananda menu you need to dial back a little.
Despite all the weird ambiance and service notes aside, the food was so good that I can look past it all.
My main tip to ordering at Ananda is do not order the typical westernized Indian dishes that you may order from a take-out place. That’s not to say their food is not authentic, it just doesn’t taste how you want it to taste (at least for me it didn’t). You’ll see why later.
Ananda prides itself on trying to be seasonal and sourcing its ingredients from local farms, I can appreciate the effort and I applaud them for attempting to do that with Indian cuisine which is probably not as easy to source as other cuisines.
We began with a round of appetizers, starting with meat samosas, avocado salad, onion bhajia, and ragda tikkis. The samosas are a work of pastry art, they do not look like the samosas you’re probably used to eating, instead of a fried samosa wrapper, you get perfect pastry dough filled with pulled lamb and other veggies. I would describe them as more pasty than standard issue samosa, but I liked these better. The crust is buttery and delicious, while the filling is moist and flavorful. I could’ve eaten like 10 of these. The avocado salad is a mixture of fresh avocado, roasted corn, lime, and mint. This salad is incredibly light and refreshing on the palate, the salty sweetness of the corn goes perfectly with the citrus of the lime and buttery avocado flavor. If you’re craving something that would be akin to onion rings, go for the onion bhajia which are chick-pea battered fried onions, they’re spicy and sweet due to the onions. My other favorite though is the ragda tikkis, which are potato, peas, and spinach mixed together and then fried into little patties. These remind me of Persian kotlets, they are delicious and the perfect partner to an order of rosemary and sea salt naan (which is a must get!). The naan is fresh and slightly sweet, highly addictive.
Moving to the main course we ordered an array of standard dishes and some not so well known dishes. First the “traditional dishes”, we started with Mutter Paneer and Chicken Tikka Masala (before you send me hate mail about chicken tikka I know it’s not really traditional but everyone orders it, so stop.) The chicken tikka has a flavorful sauce that would be better suited if it was slightly richer, I know going heavier on the cream may not be as close to the Indian roots, I want my chicken tikka masala to be super rich and flavorful almost like a Indian flavored tomato bisque. The same can be said for the Mutter Paneer, the sauce lacks really any cream which would truly elevate the dish from good to great.
Where Ananda redeems itself is in the house specials that change seasonally, these dishes are inventive, original, and one of a kind.
Fall may be the best time to go to Ananda because they serve a insanely delicious butternut squash cardamom polenta that is highly addictive with almost every special. We started with the Shrimp Balchao, per Ananda this is a traditional Goan dish, the shrimp are tossed in tamarind, coconut, lime, and chili. It’s served over the aforementioned crack-cocaine, I mean mind-blowing polenta. The shrimp is well prepared, but what makes it are the various flavors that are created by the tamarind, coconut, and lime. This is more of a tropical dish, if you want something lighter go with this dish, but if you want something that grabs you and sticks to you, go with this next dish. That would be the Dharamshala Duck, Ananda takes locally sourced duck and then slow roasts it for hours to that it’s perfectly crispy on the outside and incredibly succulent on the inside. It literally falls apart when you touch it with your fork (that’s a good thing), it’s basically like duck confit but with Himalayan flavors. The duck is flavored with pomegranate and some tamarind so it has this intoxicating sour and sweet flavor, I recommend a order of naan with this so you can soak up all the yummy sauces in the bowl. This also comes with the cardamom polenta and that’s just the cherry on top, because if I had to get this dish every time, I would. You have to get this. I would put it as one of the best things to eat in Howard County. It’s that good.
Overall, Ananda has redeemed itself in my book, go to Ananda with an open-mind and order things that you wouldn’t normally get at an Indian restaurant and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the flavorful and inventive creation that they lay before you.
Final Grade: A-