Indian Exceptionalism

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

(P.S.: All you folks in north Minneapolis and the northwestern suburbs who write to me complaining about the lack of restaurants up there? Here's your chance to make a difference.)

Chutney Indian Grill, meanwhile, has a long Minnesota history. For years the original restaurant thrived in New Brighton, where it not only won lots of best-Indian-restaurant awards, it served fresh-grated coconut chutney and chilled lagers in a space filled entirely with dark wood paneling and decorative badminton rackets. It kind of made you feel like you were in the farthest reaches of the British Empire. If you remember that, you will find the new location quite a shock. It's basically a grocery store, with tables. At night you'll sit hard by functioning freezer cases, and your table will be topped with a white tablecloth and candle. Over your head, fluorescent lighting will ensure that, if necessary, you can readily perform emergency surgery. It has not, shall we say, a woman's touch. It has not a beer or wine license. It has not anywhere for you to hang your purse, dandle your kitten heels, or perch your Cosmo. Got it? Honestly, the only thing the new Chutney has is mad cooking talent.

That talent belongs to Sanjay Kumar, a one-time part owner, original family member, and former cook at the old Chutney. And you should see what that man can do with a lunch buffet. When I visited, I found a dozen items, each of which proved in a different way Kumar's serious intent and know-how. First, there was a fresh goat curry, full of gorgeously chewy baby goat meat on the bone, all of it tootling away in a deep red sauce so glossy with long cooking and released gelatin that you could practically see your reflection in it. The vegetable korma, that most humble of vegetable and potato mélanges, is delicious: the bright yellow mashed potatoes that unite it savory with toasty mustard seeds, fresh-cut carrots and crisp peas brightening and sweetening every bite, cashews, almonds, fresh cilantro, and unspooling cinnamon sticks adding to the air of a vegetarian jamboree. Creamy chicken curry was as simple and clearly good as a song sung by a child alone.

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

The dal, that essential lentil concoction of everyday Indian cooking, was breathtaking: Here, in the dal makhani, black lentils are suspended in a brown lentil broth of such smoky intensity that you need to close your eyes when you taste it. Not because of fiery spices, for it's no more spicy than Aunt Lena's lentil soup, but because of the way it echoes on the tongue with its spice-like-a-thousand-whispers. I saw three sorts of seeds and at least two more legumes floating around in this handsome concoction. This is what Indian cooking is supposed to be.

Everywhere you look, you see that attention to detail. The ubiquitous jarred lime pickles aren't. Instead, here they're homemade preserved lemon sections, tossed with toasted mustard and caraway seeds, combined with fat green olives, and allowed to meld until the whole thing is perky and fierce. The raita is full of spice, cucumber, cilantro, and salted tomato. When I was there at the lunch buffet, there were only three other tables dining, so I can't guarantee this rare treatment in the future, but as we sat the chef sent each table a basket of fresh bread: I nearly cried. Pride in accomplishment! Caring! I remember this.

The ordinary naan, that flatbread baked in the terrifically hot heat of a clay-lined tandoor oven, is light, toasty, and expansive, distilling the most important aspects of fire and grain, and their ability to keep us alive. But the garlic naan! It is brushed with a bit of oil, and decorated with salt, garlic, and a handful of cilantro leaves, which makes it taste like everything good about crispy garlic and everything good about the rest of food. I hereby declare Chutney's garlic naan the best shrimp scampi, escargot, and garlic bagel in Northeast, if you know what I mean.

At night, Chutney's food is all cooked to order, but you've grasped you'll be eating in a grocery store, right? It doesn't offer much in service, timing, or any of the restaurant things one goes to restaurants for, so I suggest it might function best as a take-out. Still, when I went one night for dinner I got some truly delicious things. The cholle bature ($3.99) is a deep-fried poori bread that tastes like a big, crispy doughnut. It's served beside a tamarind, onion, and chickpea curry: Dip the crackling bread in the sweet-and-sour curry, and you'll wonder why this isn't sold inside every movie theater.

Saffron chicken ($9.99) is served in a pool of deeply golden sauce through which bob a few specks of black mustard seed and upon which float a few remote islands of olive-colored curry leaves. When I had it, the stuff looked so elegant I almost feared that textile designers would rush in and seize it from me, taking it to Calvin Klein for duvet-cover inspiration. It tasted delicious, like a breeze coming in over flowering hills. So, the food at Chutney is excellent, but I still think that the majority of people will like it as a take-out or a lunch buffet.

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