It's high noon on a Tuesday and there's a short wait for a table while staffers clean up after recently departed guests. Most of the diners are here for the lunch buffet, but I also spot a few couples enjoying a la carte options ordered off the regular menu. In place of thrifty university students, the folks filling every seat in the house appear to be fully formed adults, most likely medical, educational or cultural professionals from nearby institutions.
There's been plenty of handwringing going on about the state of affairs in and around Uptown, the neighborhood that continues to take shape in University Circle. While observers discuss various shortcomings as related to wayfinding, parking and the proliferation of "bland fast-casual restaurants," Indian Flame is quietly sprinting towards its 10th birthday. A decade in business is a mark of distinction for a restaurant located anywhere on a map, but it feels especially noteworthy on the unpredictable restaurant row that has formed along Euclid Avenue.
In 2010, after a work visit to Indian Flame, I wrote the following: "As the Uptown project in University Circle begins to take shape... some of the existing restaurants are bound to be swept away in the revamp. Here's hoping Indian Flame won't be one of them." As it turns out, that's precisely what happened – nearly. An expired lease at its original location almost spelled doom for the mom-and-pop Punjab shop. Instead, the owners found refuge in a larger, brighter and infinitely more agreeable space one block west, in a property made vacant by the relocation of Piccadilly Artisan Creamery.
There are few dining experiences more immediately gratifying, roundly satisfying and value-conscious than a well-prepared Indian buffet. The one dished up at Indian Flame ($10.99) is among the best in town, fueled by a fresh and bottomless selection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian Northern Indian dishes. On that particular Tuesday I counted approximately eight different main selections, in addition to two types of rice, salad, raita, chutneys, pickles and an endless supply of fresh-baked buttery naan. Mildly spiced dishes were built around chickpeas, lentils and mixed vegetables in a creamy butter sauce. There also was crunchy deep-fried veggie pakora, lipstick-red tandoori chicken and airy biryani studded with tender boneless chicken.
Dinner is a more civilized affair, with the buffet line cleaned, stowed and readied for the following day, replaced by servers and a large menu flush with familiar and not-so-familiar options. Meals now can begin with an ice-cold Indian beer like Taj Mahal or glass of white or red wine thanks to an eight-seat bar that was installed in the new space. That bar also happens to be a fine perch on which to wait for take-out orders while watching mesmerizing Indian pop music videos.
A nice place to start, especially if you're knocking back one of those beers, is with a basket of wafer-thin papadum ($2.99) and some street food-style snacks like papri chaat, pani puri or aloo tikki chaat. These crispy, crunchy, savory treats are topped with various sauces and chutneys, resulting in a riot of flavors and textures. The aloo tikki chaat ($5.99) arrives with three seasoned and pan-fried potato patties beneath a flurry of chickpeas, fresh herbs and sweet, tart and tangy chutneys.
Indian Flame's curries are resplendent, with the goat curry ($15.99) leading the pack. Lurking in the fragrant, intensely flavored and deeply spiced sauce are succulent pieces of slow-cooked meat. The goat is on the bone, but just barely, falling off with a gently nudge from a spoon. All that's needed is some aromatic steamed rice and a dish of cool, refreshing yogurt-based raita to counter the heat. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the shahi paneer ($12.99), firm cubes of fresh cheese bathed in a rich, creamy and nutty gravy. This vegetarian dish makes chicken tikka masala seem boring by comparison. Large, festive and the color of the setting sun, a glorious platter of shrimp biryani ($17.99) is always a good idea. We count about a dozen large, plump and perfectly cooked shrimp buried in the fluffy, intoxicating rice. If you like things hot as Hades, the neon-green cilantro and mint chutney is your best friend.
The fact that Indian Flame survived for a decade in a dark, cramped space at the far end of a road that always seemed to be under construction should be proof enough of its quality and value. Now that stellar food shines brighter still in a cheery, sun-lit space deeper into the main drag. That's great news for both Indian food fans and observers looking for a University Circle success story.