Have you ever noticed that most Indian restaurants in town feature the exact same menu? Apart from the prices, which seem to be adjusted for neighborhood, interior design and portion size, there is little to differentiate one restaurant from another. If ethnic dining is all about discovery and adventure, why are we compelled to order the same dish time after time?
As an Indian-American business owner, Jay Patel understands that you have to make things comfortable for the timid. That means offering chicken tikka masala, rogan josh and bushels of fluffy naan. But Patel also understands that to stand out in a crowd, you need to take some risks. His plan started with the purchase last January of a 15-year-old Indian restaurant with a good track record: Kashmir Palace. He then renovated the space, hired a new chef, completely altered the menu and reopened as Flavors of India.
"We wanted to change people's perception of an Indian restaurant," explains Patel. "We prepare dishes that have never been served in Cleveland before." Bold claims, to be sure. But I did spot entire menu sections filled with items of which I'd never heard. Patel introduces diners to the wonderful world of chaat, a category of Indian street food designed for people on the go. "In Bombay, where people are always rushing, rushing, rushing, they serve these finger foods everywhere," says Patel. It is rare to see them here though."
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a plate of loaded nachos, the dahi batata puri ($4.99) is a colorful arrangement of exotic snacks. Standing in for the tortilla chips are the puri, tiny spherical cups made of crispy chickpea batter. Replacing the meat and beans is a savory mixture of potatoes, lentils and onions. Instead of a thick cap of melted cheese, there is a delicate layer of thin yogurt and a drizzle of sweet chutney. While Flavors of India still offers the predictable round up of samosas and pakoras, the restaurant ventures beyond with starters like batata vada ($2.99). Seasoned cooked potatoes and peas are formed into balls, rolled in chickpea batter and deep-fried until golden and crisp. The best part of this dish is the spicy acid-green cilantro chutney.
Even salads here come with a pleasant whisper of spice. (Everything is available mild, medium, hot or "Indian hot.") Another menu rarity, the kachumber salad ($2.99), is a refreshing mix of chopped cucumber, tomato and onion tossed in lemony masala dressing.
Patel imported a chef with 20 years' experience cooking in Washington, D.C. Unlike many local Indian restaurants (yes, even your favorite), Flavors of India uses no canned sauce bases. Compare the butter chicken at your beloved joint with the version served here ($11.99) and you will undoubtedly notice a smoother texture, rounder flavor and richer complexity. Rarely have I enjoyed lamb as tender as that in the lamb madras ($11.99). Sprinkled throughout with black mustard seeds, the earthy sauce is aromatic and pungent - but it is well south of "hot" as we requested.
The same holds true of our shrimp vindaloo ($16.99), a South Indian dish prized for its fiery constitution. It seems that when it comes to spicing, this restaurant makes the same mistake as everybody else in town: discounting diners' tolerance for and appreciation of bloody-hot food. While decidedly tame, the sauce still gets a stamp of "vindalicious" thanks to its masterful balance of spice, tang and bouquet.
Entrees include, free of charge, a large portion of fragrant basmati rice infused with peas and cinnamon. This is not license, however, to dispense with a side order of naan ($2.25). Made to order in the tandoor oven, the puffed bread is charred, steamy and irresistible.
When you can no longer take the heat, call lassi. Flavors' creamy mango lassi ($2.99) is made with house-made yogurt and fresh fruit, giving this tongue-taming beverage a bracing sweet-tart complexion.
Our bravado catches up with us at dessert time. Intrigued by the description of an unfamiliar Bengali sweet called rasmalai ($4.25), we tack an order onto the meal. Imagine Wonder-bread dumplings soaked in sweetened condensed milk and then doused with perfume and you begin to comprehend this popular Indian treat. "It's an acquired taste," admits Patel during a follow-up phone conversation. In actuality, those spongy dumplings are made from paneer, and the perfume is fancy rose water. Acquired taste indeed. When it comes to lunch, Flavors of India is a lot like other Indian restaurants: They offer a daily lunch buffet ($7.99 weekdays, $9.99 weekends). But even here, diners likely will experience a larger variety, hotter food and even a few surprises.
Note: Due to kitchen maintenance, the restaurant will be closed October 3, 4 and 5.
Flavors of India
26703 Brookpark Rd. Ext., North Olmsted
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday