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.

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.

The great population exchange raises interesting questions about why you stay where you stay. When I reached Chaudhury in New York, where he was recruiting more waitstaff, he confessed, "I never knew I loved New York so much until I moved to Minneapolis." So I guess it's safe to say he won't be a permanent transplant. Still, he suggests a best-of-both-worlds compromise that doesn't require vast numbers of frequent-flyer miles:

"Every day, two or three couples from New York come to the restaurant and everyone says the same thing: They lived in New York (a lot of them went to NYU), they used to dine in my restaurants while they were there, and they are so happy to find what they used to have right here."

Okay, so who's up for subways next? Let's meet in front of the Gap next Friday, noonish. If everybody brings a shovel, I bet we could get a good start on digging our first station before frost hits.

 

TABLEHOPPING

SNOOTS TO YOU: I don't know of any more persuasive argument to be made for vegetarianism than the World Pork Expo taking place June 10-12 in Des Moines. What's with the "Fun that sticks to your ribs" slogan--"Fun that sticks to your ass" was taken?

In the PR kit I got, I've been told that you all are invited to "saddle up to the table for more than 100,000 samples of lip-smackin' pork." Don't they mean sidle? Who saddles around? Except people with a lot of fun stuck to their asses? You'll also saddle up to the "Pig-casso" art show, cheer on "racing porcines as they hoof it around the track several times each day" (at least something's getting a workout) and, incredibly, view "hundreds of cuts of fresh and processed pork from all over the world." For more information eyeball www.nppc.org, and if you saddle down to Iowa for the event, do me a huge favor and smack whoever coined the Pork Expo's barbecue contest name, BarbeQlossal. Please. Human beings did not descend from the trees to use words like BarbeQlossal. BarbeQlossal is fun that sticks in your craw.

CHRISTMAS IN MARCH: What was Tim McKee, famed chef at Stillwater's La Belle Vie, doing the first week in March? Celebrating Christmas, of course. See, he was posing with his family for a Food and Wine magazine spread for next December's issue. "Yeah," laughs McKee, "It was our Christmas traditions in somebody else's house, it was great. It's supposed to be an eight-page article, maybe even a cover." Let me be the first to say: Jumping copa-crusted rabbit loins! Take that, Christie Brinkley! Meanwhile, in the seasonally correct world, McKee has just debuted his spring menus, and my oh my, they do look enticing: oyster and curried cucumber yogurt soup, a starter of stewed baccalà (salt cod) with Sungold tomatoes and arugula; entrées such as grilled quail with cannellini beans and romesco (a Catalonian sauce of tomatoes, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, almonds, and olive oil).

More good news: Tasting menus--special, four-(or more) course selections drawn up whenever McKee gets his hands on some cool, unusual ingredients--are now a regular feature at La Belle Vie. And wowee, they make me weak at the knees. One set of lucky diners worked their way through stone crab and curry croquettes with osetra caviar; beef carpaccio with Stranges Bay oysters and sea urchin aioli; sautéed red mullet with cannellini beans and rouille; muscat-glazed lamb sweetbreads on toasted brioche; and roasted rack of lamb with tomato-eggplant jam and bagna cauda. Typically, tasting menus cost $55 per person, but they'll be more if there are particularly expensive ingredients involved. Even on days when McKee isn't offering a tasting menu, he'll draw one up for you if you call a few days ahead --all you have to tell them is what you don't like to eat, and he'll keep it out of the lineup. (La Belle Vie is at 312 S. Main St., Stillwater; (651) 430-3545.) Bill Summerville, La Belle Vie's charming wine guru, can help you assemble coordinating wines.

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