The days are getting shorter, and we're all struggling to settle back into our fall routines. Just when we needed it, there's Ananda, the thoroughly disarming, even magical, new Indian restaurant in the faraway kingdom of Maple Lawn in Howard County.
You'll get up from your meal at Ananda, maybe a bit reluctantly — really, it's so cozy and comfortable here, you might want to linger — feeling refreshed, pleasantly full and extremely satisfied.
I say pleasantly full because American diners can feel weighed down by Indian food. That partly has to do with our not eating the food in the right combinations, but also because the food we get in many Indian restaurants can be heavy and sodden.
But all at Ananda is light, fresh and clean. A marvelous sauteed seafood dish, jingha karari, offers up the natural flavor of well-tended shrimp, sauteed simply with garlic, ginger, green chilies and coriander leaves. Lamb chops, roasted in a tandoor oven and finished on the grill, are tenderly coated with slivered almonds and served with a fresh mint chutney.
Those old Indian-menu standbys, chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo, are superbly handled at Ananda, cooked in curry sauces with impressive depth and complexity, and presented with an eye for formality. They look ravishingly beautiful on Ananda's starched white tablecloths, which in turn look gorgeous in the restaurant's largest dining room — a glass-walled extravaganza called the Veranda.
I remembered the Veranda as being painted blue, but it's not. It was the sky that was blue. On a late summer night, Ananda's golden-hued dining room, which evokes a giant jewelry box, is filled with azure, then sapphire. When the weather is fine, the garage-style doors are lifted, and fresh air fills the room. It's sublime, but bring a light sweater.
Ananda occupies a free-standing building in Maple Lawn, a 600-acre planned community a few miles south of Columbia. The exterior, which is meant to evoke a medieval castle, is a doozy. The entrance from the back parking lot leads directly into the polo-themed bar and lounge area, which would be pretty except for the three TV sets tuned in to random cooking shows and sporting events. Radiating out from here are two public dining rooms, a private one and a banquet room.
Ananda is from Keir and Binda Singh, the Baltimore-based restaurateurs best known for the Ambassador Dining Room in Baltimore's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood.
The Ambassador, which occupies a ground floor space in a massive 1930 Tudor-Gothic apartment building, is widely adored for its Masterpiece Theatre atmosphere, although its food can range from fine to perfunctory.
Ananda strives to evoke something of the same nostalgic feeling, and it succeeds. The atmosphere is sophisticated but not stuffy. There are elegant homey touches like vintage mirrors, stained-glass windows, wood paneling and custom windows reclaimed form a Bolton Hill mansion.
The food — in particular, the items listed as house specials — is elegant, too.
Hindvana is a gracefully assembled salad of cylindrically cut watermelon slices, baby watercress, feta cheese and sweet onions, sprinkled with roasted pistachios and coated with a lime-chili dressing. At tableside, a chilled soup of summer squash, Granny Smith apples and carrots is poured from a silver pitcher into a bone-white bowl and is garnished with spiced pear chutney.
From the regular menu of appetizers there are fine choices like a light salad of avocado and roasted corn tossed with peppers in a white balsamic vinaigrette, and bengan khas, a warm savory stew of baby eggplant and tomatoes topped with cool yogurt and mint.
Even the homespun dal makhani is pretty because it uses a variety of lentils instead of just one kind. The lentils are firm and very spicy, surprisingly so for a dish that isn't labeled as spicy. Across the board there is more peppery heat than you might be accustomed to, so be sure to ask about it.
There is more to cheer about, such as a cocktail list of frothy but potent concoctions like the Polo Smash, a variation on the classic bourbon smash, and a dessert list with treats like homemade mango-mint sorbet or a flourless chocolate torte with cardamom ice cream.
When we visited, Ananda was humming with life. Family groups were here, a few with small children, and groups of friends. Look around, I said to my companions, people are having a good time, aren't they? Yes they are, they agreed, and so are we.
Rating: Four stars
Where: 7421 Maple Lawn Blvd., Fulton
Contact: 301-725-4800, anandarestaurant.net
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $3-$11; entrees and sandwiches: $14-$25
Food: Classic Indian Punjabi cuisine with Chesapeake influences.
Service: Considerate and well informed.
Parking: Ample on-site parking.
Outdoor seating: Patio seating in seasonal weather.
Children: Children are welcome, and the kitchen is happy to adjust menu items.
Special diets: The kitchen can accommodate most dietary restrictions.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining room. There are three televisions in the bar/lounge area, with their volume turned off.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4 ; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]