- Walter Novak
- India Garden: Turn up the flavor by turning down the heat.
With all the numbers being shouted, it could have been Friday night at the bingo hall. "Gimme an eight. No, wait, make it a six!" "That's a four? Wow, then make mine a three!"
Nah, it was just another dinner hour at Lakewood's India Garden, a comfy little Northern Indian eatery where the vibe is friendly, the beer is cold, and the food is as fiery as anyone could dare.
As the saying goes, when it comes to spicy, "There's hot, there's real hot, and then there's Indian hot!" Fortunately for firephobes, staffers try to provide an objective index, in the form of an incendiary cilantro, mint, and jalapeño chutney. Along with a jammy, sweet-tart tamarind version and paper-thin pappadams (crisp, salty lentil wafers, jacked up on black pepper), it arrives at the table as soon as you're seated.
Apparently, the green, radioactive glow of the cilantro chutney is no accident. A few spoonfuls, and we're dabbing sweat from our lip and sniffling like meth heads. "On a scale of 1 to 10," our server says coolly, "that's about a four."
We may be wusses, but we aren't fools: When the server returned to take our order, we asked that the kitchen cap the heat at threes and fours. Then we spent the next 10 minutes wishing we could see the eventual reactions of the Bay Village types at the next table -- the ones who started out asking for eights. They looked more like one and two types to us.
We warmed up fast to our own picks, not least of all because the dishes were so subtly seasoned -- the tang of yogurt here, a flush of cumin there, and notes of cilantro, fennel, and cardamom throughout -- that it would have been a shame to dull our palate with an overload of pepper.
Plus, there's so much to choose from, beginning with starters and soups, like the tart Mulligatawny, stocked with lentils, tomato, rice, and shreds of chicken, all the way through the assorted curries, biryanis, and tandoori-cooked specialties. Among the numerous vegetarian options, for instance, aloo saag (cubes of tender potato in a fluffy blanket of pureed spinach) whispers of exotic climes. And malai kofta (soft cheese and potato croquettes, simmered in a creamy golden curry, piqued with raisins) is one of the best versions of this meat-free standard we've found. Our only regret? Having to share the bounty with three hungry companions!
The upside, of course, is the opportunity to snatch forkfuls of their food in return. That includes fragrant jalfrazie, a saffron-colored toss of neatly cubed onion, green pepper, and buttery, boneless chicken breast; tender lamb rogan josh (also boneless), in a peppery yogurt-enhanced curry sauce; and floral jeera, lightly spiced basmati rice, boasting visible threads of saffron.
Small but airy, the dining room boasts some fancy threads of its own, in the form of sheer, silky placemats, richly embroidered with gold and silver strands. Cloth napkins, slim-handled flatware, and framed wall art (some of it apparently left over from the former occupant, Bella Lucca) add panache, as does the classical music that plays quietly in the background.
Because many dishes are made to order, heavy traffic can affect the kitchen's pacing too. On a bustling Friday evening, for instance, nearly 50 minutes elapsed between the time we ordered and the point when our meals finally arrived. In contrast, on a relatively quiet weeknight, our entire visit was accomplished within almost the same time frame. Diners on really tight schedules might be smart to check out the daily $7.95 lunch buffet.
For many fans of Indian cookery, the assortment of warm, pliable flatbreads is one of the main appeals, and India Garden doesn't disappoint. Part foodstuff, part utensil, the kitchen's sturdy version of naan is a particularly good choice for scooping up bits of meat, veggies, and sauce. In contrast, the buttery gobi paratha, a delicate layered bread, should be best appreciated solo for its light "stuffing" of finely minced cauliflower.
Besides the expansive assortment of traditional Northern Indian fare, the menu includes a handful of Indo-Chinese style dishes. Possibly the world's first "fusion cuisine," the approach typically combines traditional Indian spices with Chinese stir-fry technique and can result in dishes both complex and novel. Here, however, the kitchen met with mixed success. Stir-fried cauliflower florets, in a hot-and-tangy "Manchurian-style" sweet sauce, earned high marks for its unexpected savor. But despite a nice balance of sweet, tart, and salty elements, haka chow mein -- essentially, thin spaghetti tossed with threads of cabbage, carrot, red onion, and cilantro -- never quite triggered our wow! reflex.
Regardless of the dish, though, the menu offers a suitable libation. For beating the heat, yogurt-based lassi (in sweet or salty versions) or crisp Indian lagers (like Kingfisher, Taj Mahal, or Flying Horse) make cool companions. Likewise, a small international wine list offers a moderately priced selection of refreshing reds and whites. And after some creamy rice pudding (kheer) or sweet gulab jamun (deep-fried, cake-like milk balls, served in light syrup), a cup of aromatic chai or frothy Indian-style coffee (a hand-whipped frappé of instant coffee and whole milk) can provide smooth transitions back to winter's realities.
After all, it's cold outside. We say, Bring on the heat.