Celebration by Rupa Vira restaurant review: Modern Indian food worth reveling in

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Unrated during the pandemic

The chef whose name graces Celebration by Rupa Vira in Ashburn, Va., has no formal culinary training. She learned her craft at home, back in Mumbai, where her husband, Sharad, had a habit of surprising her with unexpected guests for dinner.

“I was never angry on my husband,” says Vira, 57. Indeed, she thanks him for his support, then and now. “I want you to be famous!” she says he told her.

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Whipping up meals on demand turned out to be good experience for the caterer Vira became after she and her family relocated to the United States in 2003, for educational opportunities for her two children, son Priyank and daughter Darshni Vanodia. The catering company led to the chef’s first Ashburn restaurant, Rupa Vira’s the Signature in 2015. Celebration followed in January 2020.

The younger restaurant, in Cameron Chase Village Center, is a family affair. Priyank serves as general manager, and Sharad and his daughter are the interior designers responsible for the look of the space, whose 120 seats are spread across a lounge and a dining room visible behind an inside window. The display of shiny chafing dishes near the entrance is a tease; the ongoing pandemic means no buffets for the foreseeable future.

The lounge has cool written all over it. Chairs the color of lemongrass frame the tables and sleek bar, illuminated so that the spirits on the shelves seem to glow. The general manager says “the TVs were a debate for us.” Ultimately, screens were hung so patrons could enjoy whatever game might be broadcast. One of several monitors plays a video of Celebration’s catering successes — mouthwatering incentives to hire Vira for your next special occasion. The larger second room finds rose-colored seating and paintings by a local artist that play up the restaurant’s theme.

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Rasika in Washington is the rare Indian restaurant to launch a trend, which is to say just about every Indian restaurant around serves some version of the palak chaat made famous by Rasika chef Vikram Sunderam. Celebration’s verdant appetizer is a stunner that uses fried kale in addition to spinach in the yogurt-striped salad, and adds juicy pear, brilliant pomegranate seeds and what look like pearls to the equation. (They’re actually blueberry and yogurt inside gel-like spheres of the kind made popular by modernist chefs including José Andrés of Minibar fame.) Full of flavor, the texture is a wonder. “Like air!” a dining companion says as he inhales the fried greens.

Rupa Vira is hardly a copycat. Nowhere else have I enjoyed chicken tikka meatballs, tender orbs of ground chicken that open to reveal yellow (turmeric and saffron) and green (cilantro) cores and share their bowl with a smoked chile sauce and a drift of ricotta. Ignore the naan on the table and you could be forgiven for imagining yourself in an Italian trattoria. The chef has a modern way of looking at Indian food, or at least making everything catch the eye. A trio of sauteed scallops is presented in the shells, with dollops of turmeric mousse that match the chairs, a shimmer of roe and splashes of chile oil. The pops of color are welcome sights, although the mousse struck me as too sweet.

Delicious lamb patties are staged on flaky paratha alongside a trio of colorful sauces in an appetizer with a backstory about a long-ago Nawab of Lucknow. The aging monarch loved meat, but had lost his teeth, prompting royal cooks to create something soft. Vira’s contemporary version is galouti kebab, lamb seasoned with star anise and other warm spices and mashed so as not to overtax the jaw.

The chef’s on-the-fly dinners in Mumbai are recalled in her butternut squash kofta, a dish she made for her husband and associates, and a prize among Celebration’s vegetarian selections. Thumbs of mashed, fried squash and potatoes lounge in a creamy onion gravy that acquires its red shade and touch of sweetness from goji berries.

I was concerned one visit when my server asked what we’d like and didn’t bother taking any notes. My party’s request was a long one. To everyone’s surprise, she repeated the order back to us and didn’t miss a detail. The attention at Celebration is reserved but helpful. Our guide’s sharp memory was followed by, among other dishes, Bombay cheese toast — rafts of bread slathered with mashed vegetables and the subtly sour Indian cheese called amul, and a rich lobster curry whose coconut milk and lime leaves channel the tropics of Kerala, in southwest India.

Edible flowers and avant-garde touches make for attractive appearances — Vira says her husband prefers different colors on his plates — and the chef’s presentations tend to be supported by good taste. In fact, two of the best entrees are modestly dressed in comparison. Tender morsels of chicken in a velvety green drape of pureed cilantro and cashews add up to a superlative korma, simply streaked with chile oil. Goat meat cooked to soft succulence pulses with fresh ginger in a curry colored with ratanjot, a plant whose roots yield a natural red dye. We ask for the goat “spicy,” which translates to teasing rather than sweat-inducing. Nevertheless, it’s luscious.

Celebration is not without some lesser moments. Lamb chops requested medium-rare showed up thoroughly cooked; the highlight of the plate was the electric green chile sauce (all but erased with some chile- and paneer-stuffed naan). Some dishes, and not just desserts, suffer from the too-sweets. A showy nest of vermicelli fried in ghee, scattered with crushed nuts and arranged with saffron-flavored “eggs” made from cottage cheese would be better with half the sugar. The better ending is ghevar, a disc of fried cake that’s soaked in syrup, shatters like honeycomb and sits on rabdi, the creamy and nutty confection sprung from reduced milk.

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The owners aimed for a restaurant where every plate would draw the eyes and diners could count on a festive time, regardless of the day of the week. Celebration by Rupa Vira makes good on its name.

44260 Ice Rink Plaza, Ashburn, Va. 571-281-2233. celebrationva.com. Open for takeout, delivery and indoor dining 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Prices: dinner appetizers $8 to $21, main courses $16 to $30. Sound check: 68 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: The entire staff is vaccinated and wears masks.

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