Indian Exceptionalism

Two new restaurants reinvigorate what was a seriously depressing local Indian food scene

Chutney Indian Grill
3700 Central Ave. NE
Columbia Heights

763.782.9900

Great India
6056 Shingle Creek Pkwy.
Brooklyn Center

763.560.8480

 

Dishes from the generically (but aptly) named Great India
Bill Kelley
Dishes from the generically (but aptly) named Great India

Location Info

Map

Chutney Indian Grill

3700 Central Ave. NE
Columbia Heights, MN 55421

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Columbia Heights

Great India

6056 Shingle Creek Parkway
Brooklyn Center, MN 55430

Category: Restaurant > Indian

Region: Brooklyn Center

I started my quest last August and lost the first of my friends to the Indian restaurant with the gummy leatherette booth and the telltale ding! ding! ding! of a microwave preceding each delivery of each gluey, oily mess masquerading as Indian food. No more Indian restaurants, my friend informed me, quite seriously, on our way home. No more.

I moved on. I lost my next friend to the place with the lamb cooked in rancid oil, so cleverly constructed that the unforgettable cardboard-and-sulfur taste was at first blocked by heavy spicing. I spit my food into my napkin and gasped, "Am I going to get food poisoning tonight?" My friend has been completely unavailable for dinner since.

I figure I've been to eight of the newer Indian restaurants that have popped up around the Twin Cities in the last two years, and only in the last few weeks, when I found the very youngest ones, a two-month-old and a three-month-old, Chutney Indian Grill and Great India, did the miserable march of messy masalas and measly murgs end.

And yes, yes, I know. Don't write to me saying, "Oh, Dara, you fail to recognize the exceptions, that's what's wrong with you." For I recognize the exceptions--I do! I know we should all be grateful for our local wonder Udupi and a few choice other neighborhood spots. But let's face it, ever since the glory days of the late, lamented Curry Leaf and Sri Lanka restaurants, most of our local Indian restaurants have degraded to the point where they seem like outposts of the same lazy chain. And my friends aren't the only ones lost to this mess: Those few new chefs and restaurateurs who are trying to do more, but are being avoided by a restaurant-going public thrice-burned by their lazy counterparts, they are the true victims.

I mean, of course, the nice folks at Chutney Indian Grill and Great India.

With a forgettable name and an out-of-the-way Brooklyn Center location, Great India enters the race handicapped, but quickly rushes to the head of the pack. Just give this little spic-and-span spot a couple of tries and you will find lots of real, careful, thoughtful cooking. I think my favorite dish is the murg malai kabob ($12.95), large pieces of chicken breast marinated in a lemon-accented cream, coated with cardamom, fire-grilled, topped with fresh-cut cilantro, and served on a red-hot platter sizzling with onions. The resulting ovals of chicken are pale and moist, look like snowballs, and taste like lovely lemony rain clouds. They're so tender, in fact, that the first bite I had of one, I assumed that the chicken had been minced and reformed. But not so, just very fancy and regal, in an unusual way.

The murg hare masala wali ($11.95) is chicken in a thick, deep orange-lemon sauce finished with lots of fresh cilantro: It's potently spicy and clear as a whistle on still air. If you go to this little strip-mall spot with its quiet hotel-restaurant ambience, be sure to try one of the three unique "dumpakht" dishes, in which Indian bread dough is pressed over the top of a copper vessel filled with your choice of stew. When your dumpakht is served, the whole serving dish is topped with a golden brown poof of bread, like an Indian potpie. Use the bread up top to scoop up bits of the zingy tomato-based sauce and the tender lamb, chicken, or vegetable filling. It's a fairly theatrical, and tasty, treat.

Another jewel of a taste at Great India is the molai kofta, in which grated carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables are sautéed, then served in an alluringly sweet and fragrant almond coconut sauce. These were so subtle they reminded me of French quenelles, in a sweetly cheery vegetarian guise ($9.95). Of all the breads I tried, I liked the thick, chewy paratha ($1.95) and the naan stuffed with ground lamb and cilantro ($2.95) best.

My biggest complaint with Great India is that they seem to suffer from one of biggest curses of all our Indian restaurants: Too many dishes. There just shouldn't be some 70 entrées to choose between on a menu. It invariably means that some dishes aren't matched with the right sauces. Not only does this leave the inexperienced diner at a disadvantage when it comes to ordering, it handicaps the restaurant, in terms of ever getting repeat business. (Actually, here, I've got a deal for all you restaurants out there with 80-entrée menus: You pare down your menu to 20 flawless dishes, and then crazy folks from affluent neighborhoods will rush in and insist you substitute this lamb for that prawn, this broth for that cream, and soon you'll be making 80 dishes anyway! Just ask any line chef in Uptown.)

In any event, the service at three-month-old Great India is very sweet. They usually seem tentative and nervous that you're there at all, and then move on to beaming with delight to have found a new customer. Which is to say, the place has been deadly quiet every time I've been there, a shame when they've got so much to share, including a beer and wine license and room for your party of 10 on a Friday night.

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