Wearing a colorful sari and a warm smile, Mamta Kumar is a welcoming sight at Nawab's restaurant in Newport News.
While she clears tables, checks the lunch buffet and oversees the dining room, Kumar always finds time to interact with customers, which is the part of her job she loves the best.
"Having a personal touch with the people is so important," she says. "Our customers feel like family to us."
Kumar and her husband, Sanjeev Kumar, manage the Newport News Indian restaurant, one of four Nawabs owned by Ashok Arora of Virginia Beach. Sanjeev's sister, Neera, is married to Arora, and the Kumars came here from India in 2004.
The exotic lure of Indian cuisine, with its fresh ingredients and spice combinations, brings customers in. But Arora believes the hospitable climate and the friendly staff keep them coming back. A few come by daily to feast on the lunch buffet.
Many of Arora's employees have worked for him for years, which he says contributes to the loyalty of his customers and the consistency of the food. And when employees leave to open up their own restaurant, he often helps them financially in getting their business off the ground. He's currently part-owner of Azitra, an Indian restaurant in Raleigh, N.C., and RoseBay Seafood Restaurant, an American-style restaurant in Chesapeake.
That pattern of expansion is one he has followed since first coming to the New York area from Northern India — "It was my dream to come here," he says — in 1982 at age 21. After working at diners for eight years in Queens and on Roosevelt Island, where he learned a lot of what he knows about cooking, Arora and his brother opened a small Indian restaurant in West Hempstead onLong Island.
By the 1990s, Arora was ready to venture out, and he headed for Atlanta with the idea of opening an Indian restaurant there.
"We stopped in Hampton Roads and I thought, 'This is a big market with no Indian restaurant,' " Arora recalls. "So my brother kept the New York restaurant and I opened one here."
The first Nawab opened in 1992 on Military Highway in Norfolk. The name refers to an honorific title given to a ruler of a princely state or a wealthy landowner, he says.
"When we first opened, we were overwhelmed," he says. "I was used to operating a 60-seat diner and we were so busy. We had lines out the door and we could barely handle the business."
Arora opened his second Nawab restaurant in 1997 in Virginia Beach, followed by the two Peninsula locations, Williamsburg in 1998 and Newport News in 2000.
"When I was working at the diner, I did a lot of the cooking," he says. "Here I cook when I need to. I still go back into the kitchen every now and then."
His restaurants concentrate on Northern Indian cuisine where meats such as lamb, goat and chicken are staples and cooking with the clay oven called the tandoor is popular. Basics to the cuisine are garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin and coriander, he says. "We use about 40 spices and we grind and blend our own."
Arora, 50, says he has developed many of the recipes over the years.
"I have good taste buds," he says. "We alter them a little bit, do some minor tweaking, for American palates. People like the spices and the fact that we have a lot of vegetarian items. About 80 percent who try it will come back.
"One of the reasons people love this place so much is because we have so many vegetarian items," says Mamta Kumar. "Indian food is so healthy because it uses so many vegetables. We make it fresh and then it's gone every day."
From the menu, customer favorites include Chicken Tikka, prepared with a saffron paprika marinade; Boti Kabab, lamb chunks in a ginger marinade; and Chicken Tikka Masala, simmered in a creamed tomato, fenugreek sauce. Popular vegetable dishes are Vegetable Korma, a vegetable medley simmered in a creamy spiced sauce, and Palak Paneer, which is creamed spinach with homemade Indian cheese.
At lunch, Arora offers a buffet seven days a week so that customers can try different dishes. He hopes they'll return for dinner and order something they liked on the buffet.
With several restaurants to manage, Arora spends a lot of time traveling, but "working with the people is what I enjoy the most.
"I enjoy this area tremendously," he says. "The people are nice and the cost of living is very low."
Want to go?
What: Nawab Indian Cuisine
Owner: Ashok Arora
Locations: 11712-K Jefferson Ave., Newport News; 204 Monticello Ave., Williamsburg; 888 N. Military Highway, Norfolk; and 756 First Colonial Road, Virginia Beach.
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday and noon-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun