Photographs by Julie Bidwell
Above: Hara Bhara Kabab (spinach and chickpea patties stuffed with spiced paneer)
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a restaurant by the number of natives dining there? Some would say yes. At India Avenue on a recent Friday night, the dining room was full with about half the tables occupied by people of South Asian descent. Several groups seemed to be celebrating birthdays or other special occasions—also a good sign that this restaurant is not just your average Indian take-out place. The Brits know their Indian, too, so we invited a friend who’s originally from England to join us in sampling the menu, which has a rich variety of options, including extensive vegetarian selections, dosas and some Indo-Chinese dishes.
While the modern dining room is a welcoming space—quite contemporary with touches of the traditional, such as metal elephant bells and an antique armoire—our first impression of the service left a little to be desired. When we walked in, the hostess was on the phone and jotting down notes (presumably taking an order), while a large group of guests stood waiting around her. Minutes passed and she didn’t look up or acknowledge either party. Then we noticed that the couple we were meeting was already seated at a table, so we excused our way through to the dining room and joined them.
Fortunately, our first impressions of the food quickly eclipsed this lack of greeting and occasional slow service during the meal. Everything here is intended to be shared, and we began with a chaat and onion bhaji along with the complimentary crispy papadums and sauces. The bhel purri chaat blends the crispy noodles and puffed rice with the citrusy flavors of tamarind chutneys, flecks of cilantro and lush potatoes and onion, somehow refreshing and hearty at the same time. This, along with the onion fries, whet our appetites for the rich flavors and Indian comfort food to follow.
Our server was helpful and friendly, recommending the he stuffed rice-and-lentil crepes, a specialty of the restaurant: “You can eat dosas for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said with a smile. We ordered a masala dosa, which is a meal in and of itself, filled with spiced potato and accompanied with a spicy curry and cool coconut paste. When we requested the lamb vindaloo, our server warned us about the intensity of the spice, but being heat lovers, we said bring it on. In fact, the vindaloo had a slow-developing heat: At first bite it doesn’t seem that intense, but then the heat gradually fills your mouth, in a pleasant way. I bit into a whole cardamom pod while eating the dish, which is lovely for those who enjoy the spice.
A standout feature at India Avenue is its clay tandoor oven, which can be viewed from a glass wall that connects the kitchen and dining room. We opted for a mixed tandoor grill, which includes an excellent coriander-spiked chicken tikka as well as a “red” chicken, salmon, shrimp and some vegetables cooked in the tandoor oven. Anyone who thinks chicken is boring needs to try the butter chicken here, a super-fragrant, heartwarming curry with onions and red peppers. Vegetarians will appreciate that there are fourteen vegetable-based entrees; we only tried one but that saag paneer was a top-notch rendition of this creamy spinach and Indian cheese standard. It’s especially delicious paired with garlic naan. Most dishes are served in copper or other metal vessels, a pretty presentation with very generous portions.
The classic desserts are a must-try. We loved the mango kulfi, traditional Indian ice cream made from caramelized, slow-simmered milk (no egg). This kulfi is shaped into half-moons and has an intense, lush fruit flavor. For the ultimate sweet comfort food, also taste the kheer (rice pudding) topped with slivered almonds and golden raisins.
With the incredible variety on the menu, this restaurant takes you on a culinary tour of India, yet our elegant dinner was also quite affordable. We’re looking forward to a repeat feast.
Chef Ramesh comes from Southern India, where dosas are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He makes them with a traditional rice-and-lentil batter and fillings and serves with a coconut chutney and side of curry.
The very large clay tandoor oven with charcoal fire, visible through a glass wall from the dining room, is used to cook many of the dishes, all of the kebabs, the naans and other breads and appetizers.
Mon.–Thu. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., 5–10 p.m.
Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., 5–10 p.m.
Sat. & Sun. 12–3 p.m., 5–10 p.m.
249 Railroad Avenue, 203-717-1567; indiaavenuect.com