Dancing Ganesha: Lost in Translation
Here's a typical scene from lunch at a local Indian restaurant: The masses are queued up behind a Herculean buffet of steaming curries, against a backdrop of fake plants and National Geographic-esque posters. My plate is overflowing, my lips are smacking of butter chicken, and I've probably already spilled some of its ruddy gravy onto a plastic tabletop. To me, going out for Indian food is like putting on a pair of sweatpants: It's more about comfort than aesthetics. The last time I dined at an Indian restaurant, the staff closed up shop while customers were still eating, flipping chairs upside down and stacking them onto empty tables.
Dancing Ganesha, the new Indian restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, is the first in town to take Indian food upscale, offering more luxurious menu items and emphasizing ambiance. The restaurant's namesake, a Hindu god with multiple arms and an elephant's head, oversees, among other things, education and learning, which seems apt for a restaurant aspiring to teach Minnesotans how extraordinary and complex Indian cuisine can be.
Ganesha's owners also operate Nala Pak in Columbia Heights, a casual spot with a mostly Indian clientele. Hoping for a broader reach, they located the new restaurant in a hip, narrow space across from the University of St. Thomas law school, the former home of Willie's Wine Bar. The room looks pretty much the same—big windows, a high ceiling, a bold color palette, and a large bar—except for the new mural depicting worshipers attending to a statue of Ganesha. The kitchen is run by Nala Pak chef Swamy Mariyadas, who is applying his background at five-star hotels to foods as familiar as the spinach-cheese dish saag paneer, along with more experimental "contemporary" items such as an Indian-fusion riff on the lavish, French lobster thermidor.
Mariyadas designed a menu that includes everything from snack foods found in India's streets to Continental-style fare served in its fancy hotels. The menu reaches across India's regions and beyond its borders, with vegetarian dosas from the south; tandoori, or clay oven-cooked, meats from the north; and seafood from the western coast. There are dishes with Chinese, Afghan, and even Anglo influences, such as mulligatawny soup, the famous dish Indian cooks created to please the British Raj.
From the crisp, fried samosas to the gulab jamun (little fried dough balls in syrup), the familiar standards all showed promise. Biryani, the signature dish of India's central Hyderabad state, was well-executed, and featured moist chunks of chicken tucked into fluffy grains of basmati rice, with a subtle, woodsy spicing. The vegetable korma's creamy sauce was delicate enough to enhance but not overpower carrots, cauliflower, green beans, and peas. Items commonly found on local menus, such as lamb tikka, were as good as lesser-seen ones, such as the naintara do pyaz, or stir-fried okra.
Ganesha's kitchen introduced me to Chicken 65, an appetizer made of chunks of chicken marinated in chile pepper, garlic, and ginger, then fried. The flavors were there, but the texture made the dish resemble greasy, gummy chicken nuggets on a bed of wilted lettuce. My disappointment with the chicken, though, was eclipsed by my excitement for two other terrific dishes. The paneer butter masala—fresh cheese cubes in a sweet, creamy, tomato-based gravy—had an irresistible tang that made me hope "upscale" ambiance didn't mean it was inappropriate to lick the plate. I also decided that gobi Manchurian—an appetizer that reminds me of cauliflower crossed with sweet-and-sour Cheetos—trumps even the 112 Eatery's beloved cauliflower fritters. The florets are marinated, dipped in a tempura-like batter, and deep-fried, before being coated in a Chinese-style sauce made with ketchup, chile, ginger, garlic, and soy sauce. Each bite begins with a crunch and finishes with a tart aftertaste that leaves you thinking only of how to get more.
Knowing Ganesha isn't trying to differentiate itself with those dishes, I also tried several of the "contemporary" entrées. The first time I ordered the lobster thermidor, I received a dish that was so utterly unlike the menu description of "Chablis and cheese sauce, mushrooms, cumin peas, and potato basket," I thought there had been a mistake. Three small, tandoori-colored lobster tails rested on a plate garnished with slices of raw onions; pink, woody tomatoes; and cold, blanched cauliflower. If mushrooms, peas, and potatoes were present, they had been bleached, pulverized, and applied with an aerosol can so that they were entirely unrecognizable. Maybe this was the lobster peri peri, listed in the menu's tandoori section? "Is this the lobster thermidor?" I asked the waiter. "Yes, it's the lobster." "The lobster thermidor?" But he was already gone, leaving us to wrestle with the creatures, which had been overcooked to resemble tough, chewy—not to mention expensive—chicken.
The second time I ordered the lobster thermidor, the server brought a dish that looked similar to what I had received the last time, except without the tomatoes and cauliflower, and proclaimed it "lobster tandoori." "But we ordered the lobster thermidor," my friend responded, at which the server acquired a puzzled expression. The server called over another server. That server went into the kitchen and reappeared with a youngish guy in a soccer T-shirt, one of the cooks.
A little back-and-forth ensued, with various questions from my party, and a lot of gesturing and explaining from the staff. At one point, the cook shook his head in frustration and muttered something about somebody else making a menu that was difficult to execute, and then leaving him to deal with it. In the end, he reassured us that this, indeed, was the thermidor—or what they were serving as thermidor these days. This time the meat tasted much better, having retained its tender texture (it had been marinated in a creamy sauce, then cooked in the tandoor), though I was still miffed by the menu's misleading description and wished our server had explained that the dish had been modified at the outset.
The other "contemporary" dishes also left me with more questions than answers. The Coorgi mushroom curry tasted good, but I couldn't understand (nor could the kitchen explain) what justified its $18 cost. The grilled fish with saffron rice was tasty, too, but I was disappointed that our waiter wasn't able to answer a basic question about it—what kind of fish is it?—much less where the fish came from.
My concerns about Dancing Ganesha have less to do with cooking than communication. If the restaurant aspires to serve customers unfamiliar with its dishes, it's essential that the descriptions are clear and the servers are able to explain them further, if necessary. I'm the first to delight in the colorful phrasings of non-native-language speakers, such as those I found on a competitor's website: "Uncompromising and Excellent Food Quality with a Lady's Touch!" "No wonder it is 'Talk in Town.'" But Ganesha's menu description of sev batata puri, "Popular Bombay eatery that takes you to Bollywood," gives no clue as to its contents. And the waiter's elaboration, "spicy bread," neglected to mention the chickpea-potato topping.
A good waiter understands and manages customers' expectations, anticipating, for example, that diners might expect saffron naan to taste like, well, saffron. If the bread actually comes filled with a sweet, pink substance—it could have been the inside of a strawberry Pop-Tart, for all I knew—the waiter might want to mention that. (If we'd known we were getting a Pakistani-style dessert naan, stuffed with saffron, cashews, almonds, cherries, and fennel, we might have received it better.) And while the staff was certainly cordial, many of the waiters seemed inexperienced with the finer points of service. At a meal that results in a triple-digit bill, I'd hope a waiter might refrain from blurting out, "Oh, shit," if he happened to, say, spill a few drops of soup in my water glass.
After that incident, I felt like I needed a drink. Fortunately, Ganesha is one of the few Indian restaurants able to oblige that request. The fancy cocktail list, which includes drinks like a ginger-laced "Indian Cosmopolitan," was better in theory than execution. Twice I tried to order the same drink and was told it was unavailable. The mint leaves in the mango mojito were spotted with brown. When a diner interested in the "Kama-sutra" cocktail asked, "What's Passoa?" she received neither an answer (passion fruit liqueur) nor a promise to find out, but simply a blank stare. Later, the server forgot to include the drinks on the bill before dropping off the check and had to sheepishly retrieve it to make the correction.
For now, Ganesha covers the basics—including a bang-up $10 lunch buffet—but the upscale elements haven't quite gelled. Local diners seem eager to experience the elegant possibilities of Indian cooking, so I hope it won't be long before Ganesha gets its curriculum fully in order.
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