From New Delhi to New Brighton

Chutney Indian Bistro

2321 Palmer Drive, New Brighton 633-6224

THE GOOD NEWS for folks who live a bit north of the cities is that they no longer have to leave their neighborhood to find cuisine that's more exotic than, say, spaghetti and meatballs. The good news for the rest of us is that New Brighton isn't as far away from the metro area as it sounds (about 15 minutes from downtown Minneapolis). Not yet six months old, Chutney offers one of the most extensive Indian menus in these parts, featuring dishes from the north, south, east, and west.

The two main chefs, one from southern and one from northern India, apparently indulge a healthy spirit of competition when it comes to cooking. When I asked what spices were used in a particular dish, a terrified look crossed our waitress's face. "I don't know. They sort of like to keep their recipes secret back there, even between themselves. When I first started working here, I once made the mistake of asking," she said, her voice trailing off. No matter; surely our waitress's enthusiasm for telling us about other things in great detail made up for this one enigmatic reply. Unprovoked, she shared bits about her former employment history, her gusto for learning new Indian words, and her pregnancy, all alongside plenty of motherly advice for how to eat which dish when. I sometimes had the frightening thought that she'd take one of us on each knee and spoonfeed us, but this never came to pass.

Chutney isn't a place where you'll be rushed through a meal. Some items on the menu, such as the dosas--an Indian pancake made from ground rice and lentils--take up to 45 minutes to make. (That's because the batter is prepared fresh for every order, and because the delicate texture of the dosas sometimes makes it necessary to take several passes before a finished version can be served up.) Forty-five minutes is just the perfect amount of time to sip a beer (the wine menu features a small selection of imported bottled beer from India, England, Ireland, and Germany, in addition to wines from California, Chile, and France, featured top-shelf liquor, and a couple of cigars, at modest prices) and work your way through an appetizer.

Spinach pakoras ($3.50) are lovely, with almost a filigree texture, crispy globes of fresh spinach, potatoes, and onions battered and fried lightly. The chicken soup ($2.75) was also good, though served a bit tepid, rich with spices and plenty of chicken and spinach. The dosas, a southern Indian specialty ($8.95), was worth the wait, stuffed with bits of tandoori-baked chicken, potatoes, and peas, and accompanied by an immense side of coconut chutney and sambhar, a warmly spiced gumbo covered with fresh cilantro. And there's wondrous bread on the side: The naan selections, made from white flour and baked in Chutney's clay ovens, are all delightful, especially the garlic version ($1.95), with its buttery, puffy texture and abundance of flavor.

It's nice to find a place where the range of entrées is also represented by their price. On one end of the scale, for $5.95, diners can gorge themselves on a delicious dal makkhani, a thick dish of butter lentils topped with coriander and served with basmati rice. If your wallet feels a bit thick, the menu ranges up to the goa machhi ($14.95), a West Indian specialty made with marinated goan fish and coconut, tomato, and onion. The selection (coconut, mango, tamarind, onion, mint, and chili) of homemade chutneys does the restaurant proud, and are free with your entrée.

It's the kind of place one can visit many times without running out of pleasant surprises. From salmon vindaloo ($14.95) to stir-fried okra ($7.95), I challenge you to find something that isn't beyond reproach. And of course, as our waitress reminded us about 15 times, you'll want to save room for dessert, all made on the premises. There's the traditional kheer (rice pudding), custard with nuts, homemade kulfi (ice cream), mango kulfi, ras malai (Indian cheese cake topped with rose water and nuts), and lush gulab jamun--a milky pastry soaked in honey and rose water--all for $2.50 a pop.

Stuck in a strip mall between a hardware store and a barber shop, Chutney's might not be the most obvious place to find an authentic, top-notch Indian bistro; the view out onto the parking lot is a bit bleak. But that's no crime--parking lots are what one seems to see out most windows now anyway.

TABLEHOPPING

IMPRESS YOURSELF: If you're feeling rusty on your chops, slices, and dices, inquire at Cooks of Crocus Hill for remedies. Cooks (877 Grand Ave., St. Paul) offers plenty of classes taught by a wide range of seasoned instructors, including Andrew Zimmern, chef at Café Un Deux Trois, Cordon Bleu graduate Yvonne Moody, and L'Academie de Cuisine graduate Deidre Schipani. Upcoming classes include: Chilies--In Pursuit of Flavor; Jam Session; Pies and Tarts Workshop; and an Ice Cream Social for Kids where pupils learn such skills as making their own ice cream, chocolate sauces, and ice cream sandwiches. Sure beats sitting around the pool and reading Foucault. Call 228-1333 to register/order a class schedule. To get you thinking in the right direction, Cooks presents this recipe for potato salad, everyone's favorite summer treat (well, some people's favorite summer treat):

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