Pattern Recognition

The curry--big, hand-cut chunks of vegetables in a mild, mellow curry sauce--was fine, but nothing more; fish masala also failed to impress, smothered as it was in a buttery, onion-heavy sauce. Beef vindaloo was nicely sour, but otherwise a letdown, and I particularly wished for a less fatty cut of beef. The big surprise here was the lamb biryani: Rich, creamy, and loaded with almonds and dried fruit, it smelled like Christmas pudding and was as good as dessert, tender pieces of stewed lamb notwithstanding. (Moghals also serves a vegetable biryani for $9.95.)

The bottom line? Both Sahib's and Moghals are neighborhood restaurants worth cultivating if you live nearby, but neither is good enough to justify the drive from elsewhere. Which is amusing, given that I ended up at both places after locals kept telling me about what they considered underappreciated gems. I guess this tendency to forgive weakness is what separates local favorites from destination restaurants.

That, and some fancy chintz. Or interesting art. Something. Heaven knows, I'm not suggesting that little neighborhood outfits should be held to strict account for their interior design, but in these cases the décor seemed to symbolize a lack of interest in doing any one thing very well (except for the aforementioned tikka and tandoori at Sahib's). Is this a chicken-or-egg problem? Do bachelors stop dating because they've given up on women--or do they give up on women because they've stopped dating? I don't know, but surely Dorothy Parker would put everyone to rights.

David Kern

Location Info

Map

Sahib's Gateway To India

4022 Central Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55421

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Columbia Heights

 

TABLEHOPPING

WHO NEEDS FISH? As part of my Year 2000 project to ferret out local vegan dining options, I set out to sample the animal-free selections at Fuji-Ya, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S., (612) 871-4055, and it went swimmingly. I started with some cold salads including spinach goma ($4.25), which is spinach cooked and served chilled with a dressing of sweet soy sauce and agedashi tofu--a salad of flash-fried cubes of tofu and ginger, grated daikon, and green onion ($4.95); ordinarily the dish is garnished with bonito, or tuna, flakes, but I had those held. I also tried some fresh and light harumaki, or vegetarian egg rolls ($3.95), which came with an enjoyable hot-and-sour mustard dipping sauce.

I moved on to an incredibly filling lunch of buckwheat soba noodles ($6.95) in a fragrant, salty broth, accompanied by what seemed like an enormous quantity of vegetable tempura featuring sweet potatoes, parsley, zucchini, and onions. Later I realized that, being merely a tourist in the vegan universe, I had neglected to ask if the dashi, or soup base, was made with bonito flakes, as is customary: In fact it was, but co-owner Tom Hanson says that on request the restaurant will use an all-mushroom dashi.

Other vegan options include miso soups, a ginger salad ($3), and vegetable sushi including futo maki ($5.50), hand rolls made with spinach, cucumber, pickles, egg custard, squash, shiitake mushrooms, and deep-fried tofu (inari); of course, you can have the egg custard left out. Hanson says Fuji-Ya has so very many vegetarian items because the neighborhood demands it--though, he notes, "generally we don't get many hard-core vegans. It seems like they are mainly trying to avoid meat." While I was at it, I complimented Hanson on Fuji-Ya's oshinko, the traditional fermented pickles, telling him that I thought he had the area's best pickle platter. That's thanks to Carol, his wife and co-owner, he explained: "Carol makes great pickles. We usually have three all winter and sometimes as many as six when other vegetables come into season. Actually, that's a typical Japanese meal right there: A bowl of rice, a plate of pickles, and a beer. What's better than that?"

 

SPEAKING OF FISH: Not too long ago I mediated yet another emotionally overwrought confrontation between an avowed vegetarian and a local Southeast Asian restaurant. It went the way these arguments always do: After years of ordering from what she thought was a largish selection of vegetarian options, the diner had discovered that many of the dishes contained a bit of fish sauce (a brew based on fermented tiny fish) or shrimp paste (made from sun-dried teensy shrimp). The vegetarian felt she had been lied to. The owner thought her business was being unfairly attacked.

My inclination, after much consideration, is to side with the restaurateur: It seems more reasonable to expect the vegetarian to learn about the basic building blocks of the cuisine she's experimenting with than to demand that the rural Laotian anticipate a specific vegetarian's requirements--especially since so many people use "vegetarian" to mean that they eat fish, but not meat. I also suspect that all of these conflicts could be avoided if vegetarians explained their needs to the people they're buying food from, ideally before establishing long-term relationships.

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