06 February 2010

Passage to India satiates…I guess

As a sometimes resident of Laramie...a review of the latest offering.

I had been out of town for a week and the most amazing thing had apparently occurred in my absence: Laramie got an Indian restaurant. Had hell frozen over? Had the entire town of Fort Collins disappeared, requiring us to recreate it here? Finally, I could walk to my very own plate of saag paneer without the treacherous drive over a mountain pass to Colorado! Apparently everyone else felt the same way; what had originally caught my attention as I entered town was the line that wrapped around the front of the restaurant and trickled off the sidewalk into the gravel pit next door. So, obviously it was time to investigate.

Let me just say that I love, love, love Indian food. I really did make that trip to Fort Collins too often to recount in service of my hankering for oily naan and special egg curry. I wanted to believe that this place would be amazing—I was practically reciting a cheer for them as I approached the building. They certainly had the down-home Laramie thing figured out. In the four days they had been open, they had already gotten to know my friends and colleagues by name and were anticipating their drink orders. Smart move. When you feel like an insider, you are more likely to forgive minor indiscretions; at least, my friends did.

We were cheerfully seated and our drink orders were taken immediately. Good. Brittney Spears or some such crap was playing loudly in the foreground. Bad. Is it odd that I want to hear music from the home country when I visit an ethnic restaurant? I am learning about an important aspect of your culture by eating your food—give me more! Teach me about music, traditional table settings, and methods of eating! I don’t think that anyone, even in Laramie, who is interested in sampling Indian food would be averse to hearing something exotic while they chew.

The chai was heavily spiced, very rich, and very sweet. This is what I have come to expect from Indian restaurants in America, so it was familiar, at least. Just for the record, I’d love to enjoy a little more of the tea flavor some day, and run less risk of filling up on my beverage before the food even comes, but my friends capitalized on the free refills all night. Give the people what they want. Next came some cracked breads with various chutneys: the green was medium hot and very tangy (my favorite), the red was blazingly hot (no one had seconds of that one), and the plum-based sauce was thick like molasses and quite sweet. It was fine.

Food took a while to come out, but in less than a week of work, I don’t expect that they entirely have their rhythm down yet. We waited 40 minutes, which would have been perfectly fine if the music had been better. We ordered naan, aloo saag, shrimp curry, chicken tandoori, and paneer korma. The naan was lovely, pillowy and oily with just the right amount of black bits on it to taste a bit of the griddle. And the korma sauce might be the best I have ever had. It was rich and creamy, with just the right balance of sweet and salty, perfectly blended to obliterate any evidence of cashews in texture. I greatly appreciated the generous number of paneer cubes; too often, paneer dishes are mostly sauce with very little cheese. There was enough in this that the paneer really could stand in for a meat. It was pure bliss.

This, however, is where my happiness ended. Nothing was horrible, but nothing else was worth the effort of putting on shoes and paying between $12 and $15 per dish, either. The tandoori contraption was reminiscent of those sizzling fajita plates in Tex-Mex places—much more style than substance. But when the sizzling died down (and after my friend smoked her finger on the edge of the plate), what we were left with was tender but bland chicken, a huge pile of raw white onion, and some lemon slices. This dish should be cleaner and more focused on technique, I realize, but a little attention to seasoning would have helped. The shrimp curry had a similar effect: we ordered “medium” spice level, but I had difficulty tasting much of anything from the sauce, spicy or not. What I did taste was shrimp, and it was an overwhelming flavor of fishiness that made me wonder just how old these babies were. They were also like rubber, a common mistake in a busy kitchen—shrimp just don’t stand up to long cooking times. It is possible that the curry sauce had more flavor than I could detect around the shrimp, but this particular meat choice made for a rather unbalanced dish.

The biggest disappointment of the evening for me was the aloo saag. I love a good saag sauce, but spinach does seem to require attentiveness in seasoning—use too little too early in the process, and every bit of flavor is just absorbed into the greens and it disappears. What we ended up with was a mouthful of heavy (the cook was generous with the cream), bland, and watery spinach. And it really tasted like nothing except spinach. I fished around for quite some time to find a piece of potato, and it, too, was entirely lacking in seasoning. So, the dish which, to my mind, requires the most salt, and which benefits the most from layers of spices, seemed to get the least of anything. And then the kicker: a brilliant blue rubber band, discovered by my friend, buried in a mound of spinach glop. Everyone was very gracious about it—soon after reporting the problem to our waiter, the manager came over and apologized, removed the dish from our ticket, and brought us more naan (hurray!). The chef came following on the manager’s heels to personally apologize. He reported that he had just fired the sous chef who was the last to handle our saag, which is really a little much for my taste, but their concern for our happiness was certainly a good approach.

Passage to India is a welcome new flavor in Laramie’s local cuisine, but in a more urban area it wouldn’t stand for long. If our new neighbors want to survive our fickle and easily bored population, they’ll have to make sure the food itself is more compelling than the mere idea of the Indian restaurant. We are, after all, still accustomed to driving to Fort Collins on weekends.