Manhattan Transfer

Passage to India
1401 W. Lake Street, Mpls.; (612) 827-7518
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-midnight, seven days a week; lunch buffet daily 11:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m.;
50 percent off regular menu items Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.

As for unanswerable riddles, I've always been partial to the question of what exactly the difference is between Minnesotans and New Yorkers. So of course I had to ask it of Farooque Chaudhury--after all, he recently opened Passage to India in Uptown Minneapolis, after establishing himself as one of the kings of Indian Row in Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he owns three restaurants.

Melissa Jansson

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Passage to India

1401 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408-2641

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

He basically describes Minnesotans as--surprise!--nice: "People in Minneapolis are so understanding, and especially are extremely polite. We are used to listening to complaints in New York: 'I don't want to sit here, it's too close to the door. I don't want to sit near this couple, they're talking too loud.' But in Minneapolis, if you ask someone, in an empty restaurant, 'Would you like to take that table by the window?' they will go out of their way to make sure that you meant one empty table and not another one." Even over the phone, I can almost hear Chaudhury shaking his head in amazement. "That degree of politeness is something you never see in New York. People here don't want to take the table that I didn't really show them. It's fun serving people here."

And it's fun being served--at 11:00 p.m., no less. Can you believe it? An Indian restaurant in Minneapolis that serves till midnight seven nights a week? Gee willikers, just call us the city that doesn't necessarily always sleep!

While we're up late, we get to choose from well over 150 dishes--I must admit that even after three visits I didn't feel like I had made much of a dent in the restaurant's vast list of offerings. I did gather that the breads are excellent, particularly the poori ($1.95), a deep-fried bread that arrives puffed up like a soccer ball and tears into two sweet, translucent layers. The plain nan ($1.95) is roasty, toasty, and fresh as can be. If you have a party of three or more, don't miss the bread basket ($8.95), which includes nan, poori, keema paratha (a bread flecked with seasoned meat), and aloo paratha, with a touch of minced, flavored potatoes. But skip the pappadam ($2.95): While most Indian restaurants hereabouts set a few complimentary lentil wafers on the table as you're seated, at Passage to India you have to order them, and you get a measly, untoasted portion--not worth the $2.95.

Also unlike other Indian restaurants in town, which offer mostly Punjabi food from the northwestern part of the subcontinent, Passage specializes in cuisine from the northeast. One of the most noticeable differences between the two is that northeastern food uses vegetable oils instead of butter, ghee (a sort of clarified butter used extensively in Indian cooking), or milk: The paratha, for example, is brushed with margarine, not butter or ghee, before serving. To me, vegetable oils have always tasted greasier than butter, so if Passage to India's preparations seem different from what you're used to, consider the difference in fats.

I didn't find anything extraordinary on the Passage menu, but I would characterize it as all-around pretty good, and in my book pretty good after 10:00 is nothing to shrug off. The best entrées I tried were the vegetarian ones: Saag paneer ($8.95), the spinach-and-cheese dish, was bright with nutmeg and cinnamon; chana masala ($8.95), chickpeas stewed in a tomato-onion sauce, were earthy and broadly spiced. Malai kofta ($10.95) were three golf ball-sized grain-and-vegetable dumplings in a creamy curry--they tasted good, but didn't seem worth the price. (Vegans take note: Passage to India serves a dozen vegetarian dishes made without butter or cheese.) Chicken dishes were also good, especially the creamy, tender chicken Kashmiri ($9.95), and the chicken rogan ($9.95) with its nicely fragrant garlic sauce. Tandoori items were evenly, adequately spiced, but tended to be dry, while seafood entrées were uniformly overcooked--shrimp vindaloo ($11.95) was particularly rubbery.

I'm betting that Passage to India's lunch buffet isn't going to win any fans--the restaurant serves half a dozen items for $5.95, but the spread just isn't up to the palatial standards of local favorites like Chutney's, Taste of India, or India Palace. Not only are there fewer options here, but the food is awkwardly arranged in catering-style chafing dishes, and you have to pay another $1 for an order of bread--which, I hasten to point out, merely brings the price up to the standard $6.95 you'd be paying in the 'burbs. But if I've learned anything about Minnesotans, it's that we'd rather pay an extra dollar and have everything included: It makes for less stressful decision-making and reduces the likelihood of (shudder!) interpersonal contact.

That said, I can't contain my excitement about the late hours. Looking at the clock every night and thinking "It's 11:40, who wants curry?" is making me positively giddy--it's like living in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin! Gertrude Stein's Paris! Eden before the Fall! The Passage to India crew also gets extra points for decorating details--like carved wood panels, pretty curtains, and decorative sari-cloth accents--that completely obscure the unpleasant memories of former occupant Taco King and its mortifying Tater Tot burritos. Who knows--maybe Taco King found a more appreciative audience in New York--after all, the free exchange of Minnesotans and New Yorkers is an important undercurrent in Twin Town life. Norm Coleman, Garrison Keillor, Craig Kilborn, and, hey, me! spring to mind.

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