Welcome to the Dal House

Three road-tested restaurateurs put Indian back on the food map

New Delhi Bar And Restaurant
1400 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis

I had no idea how unhappy I was. No idea at all. It's one of those things that just sneaks up on you, I think, and then suddenly, when you give a name to it, to that dull ache, that throbbing constant companion of winter months and summer months and some of those in-between months--you know the ones, with the puddles, when you can't wear suede? those months, too--you say, "My God, how did I not know?" For I have carried with me nothing else but the most easily understood of human emotions: depression about our local Indian restaurants.

Perhaps you suffer it yourself? The sense that no matter where you go, be it Roseville, Eagan, or even St. Louis Park, the menu is as encyclopedic as the food is indifferent, the décor from the atelier of Second-Least-Expensive Banal, the sense that the kitchens have all vowed, "I'll die before I fall out of lockstep with my competitors!" Frankly, a lot of the time, if there wasn't some fun to be had guessing whether you were in a former Happy Chef or former Pannekoeken, there'd be no fun at all. Okay, yes, certainly, I agree. Udupi's food is a gift to all vegetarians, and certainly, if you get to calling Sri Lanka Restaurant "Indian," you might feel better, but that's kind of like calling Bermuda Louisiana, and they hate that.

What was missing on Eat Street? New Delhi, the creation of Sayyad M. Hussain (left), Shamez Babvani, and Om Parkash (not pictured).
Michael Dvorak
What was missing on Eat Street? New Delhi, the creation of Sayyad M. Hussain (left), Shamez Babvani, and Om Parkash (not pictured).

I don't know. Maybe I just never came to terms with my feelings of loss and abandonment when Chutney Indian Bistro, our long-lost New Brighton star, closed. I guess I just thought we'd have a lot more time together, Chutney and me. We'd discuss things we never did, like Why the badminton rackets on the wall in the bar? Badminton? Eh? Just a lot of things like that, the little things a girl always thinks there will be time to say to a restaurant off Interstate 694 near a Lunds.

I guess all these deep, buried, and very meaningful feelings came rushing at me when I crossed the threshold into New Delhi, the new Indian restaurant and bar that opened early this summer on the corner of 14th Street and Nicollet Avenue South in the former Snoodles space in Minneapolis. For one thing, the place is decorated. With décor, even. Including big, colorful multi-panel murals, with elephants and horseback riders and all sorts of people rushing hither and thither. Yards of silk wind through the ceiling beams. Rice is served in attractive hammered-metal serving bowls, and water gets poured into metal cups. And the menu--the menu! Still preposterously long (I counted to 80 dishes, then fainted), but with dishes you don't see anywhere else, wines at reasonable prices, and Indian cocktails--Indian dessert cocktails--and, you know, finishing with brief, idiosyncratic biographies of important Mogul leaders from the 16th and 17th centuries.

(Here's a bit on "Jehangir, the Paragon of Stability, 1605-1627: Compared to his legendary father Akbar [the Great], Jehangir was neither a stellar monarch nor an adventurous warrior; he was, however, quite competent in maintaining the status quo, and for over 20 years, he did just that." Get your own menu for quotes on Humayun the Luckless and Aurangzeb the Intolerant.)

Now that's a restaurant! And not an anonymous cog!

Of course, it would turn out to be essentially the new Chutney, as the three co-owners all met while they all worked there. Om Parkash was the executive chef for Chutney and is the executive chef at New Delhi (he also owns Uptown's Natraj Indian Kitchen). Co-owner Sayyad Hussain is another longtime restaurant veteran, and floor manager and co-owner Shamez Babvani talked to me on the phone. Babvani says he spent many years plying his MBA in Pacific Rim nations, where he determined that the typical formula--as he puts it, "buy an American restaurant, hang some pictures on the wall"--was not an ideal business plan.

"When I was traveling all the time, I realized I might not always remember the food, but I remember where I ate it, the feeling and ambiance of the room," he says. "So we flew an artist in from Delhi to work on the murals, each section of which is inspired by a different Mogul artwork, and every time you sit at a different table, you are going to see something different."

Play your cards right, and you'll probably be drinking something different, too. Those of you weaned on British Indian restaurants will be delighted to learn that the place has a whole list of imports on tap ($4.50 a pint, $11.95 a pitcher): Guinness, Bass, Newcastle, and more, as well as an admirable list of bottled beers like Kingfisher and Taj Mahal. They have an inventive list of Indian cocktails, including the lethal Fenny ($6), a Bacardi 151-based concoction meant to resemble a traditional Goan palm-liquor drink, a bloody mary they claim is the hottest in town, and lots more, including a couple of mango drinks--everything you like about a mango lassi, plus everything you like about Bacardi, finally, together.

The wine list is particularly impressive if only because they made a real effort: $20 for a bottle of Buena Vista sauvignon blanc; $16 for a bottle of Gionelli Asti; $23 for Fleur du Cap pinotage. I could think of ways to improve the list, with, say, inexpensive domestic rieslings, and a few more options under $20 a bottle, but since they've only been open a few months and already are king of the mountain as far as wine lists in current Indian restaurants, I say, bravo and keep going.

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