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
612.813.0000

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.

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.

The place has a pretty nice happy hour: Monday to Friday from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., all the appetizers (except the samosas) are half price, and tap beers and cocktails are a dollar off. Some of these appetizers, like the groaning sampler plates that ordinarily cost $8 to $10, are certainly big enough for dinner. If you're anywhere near Loring Park, on a budget, on a date, or are a vegetarian, bookmark this.

Those appetizers are worth seeking out even when they're not half price. I've gotten jaded (that's the stage of grief after acceptance, right?) seeing the same frozen appetizers appearing at so many Indian restaurants, so when New Delhi dished up some honest-to-goodness handmade samosas ($2.99), all homey and real and full of cut-up pieces of potato and garden peas, I became quite happy. I stayed that way through the Indian cheese curds ($3.99), homemade squares of paneer deep-fried in a fluffy lentil-flour-based batter. I even liked--to the surprise of all--"vegan egg rolls," which should sue New Delhi for calling them that, because they're really just minced vegetables and noodles spiced with toasted mustard seeds, rolled into a little cylinder and deep-fried--crisp little original treats, not something that sounds like it would be made with grotty old bits of Utne Reader.

Even after three visits, I don't feel like I made much headway with the entrées. I did find enough things that impressed me so that, um, I could be all impressed: foremost was the murgh shahi malai tikka ($11.99), minced chicken, marinated and formed into meatballs and served sizzling on a platter with lots of onions, carrots, and pepper. The dish is flavored with cardamom and mace and served with fresh lemon wedges. The overall impression is light, bright, herbal, and a little sweet--nice.

I liked the shrimp vindaloo ($12.99) very much. It's not the red, strained chile-saturated version you might be used to; here it's a dish of stewed tomatoes and translucent onions, the whole thing given a spicy tamarind edge--again, a dish that was pleasantly both light and complicated. There's an extensive vegetarian selection, and my two favorites were easily the malai kofta ($9.95), golf-ball-size dumplings of minced vegetables, grains, and cheese served in a creamy spinach sauce--very rich, very comforting.

The navratan dhansak ($8.95) was a chopped mélange of vegetables in a coconut sauce that was more multidimensional than the average canned sweet one. Butter lentils ($7.95) prove that with enough butter, even simple black lentils become as delicious as the bacon at the bottom of the chowder.

I liked each and every bread I tried out of New Delhi's dozen, though I'd pick the garlic naan ($2.50) as the ace-in-the-hole don't-miss. Topped with chopped bits of garlic and fresh minced cilantro, this bubbly, tender mass of bread just might be better than the best garlic bagel in the Twin Cities--no kidding.

In fact, maybe they should think about putting cream cheese on it. Co-owner Shamez Babvani says the biggest problem the restaurant is having right now is all the convention traffic that comes in assuming New Delhi means New Deli: "You have corned beef?"

Considering the utterly forgettable name and the big Snoodles fork sign outside, I can't imagine how that's happening. (Apparently the sign is grandfathered in to the building's zoning, and if they got rid of it they couldn't have a high-above-the-roof sign like that anymore.) I guess I wish they had called it Fork of Glory or something. Forks Up, India! Forkful of Dal. Forking Around the Subcontinent. Who knows. I'm no good at this.

Anyway, I have to go: I can feel a bit of the lumbago coming on, and I've got a sneaking suspicion it's trying to tell me something about the tamales of New Brighton.

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