3700 Central Ave. NE
6056 Shingle Creek Pkwy.
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.
(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.
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.
When I talked to Kumar at the cash register one day, as he rang up my bill, he told me that Chutney would be a restaurant like the Village Wok in its prime, offering magic to true cooking connoisseurs who are interested in a pilgrimage. It's hard for me to see this: From what I've seen of Minnesota restaurant culture most people would rather have a good Scotch in a faux Tuscan anything than great saffron chicken in a grocery store, but we will see. In any event, if you yourself have been thrice-burned by local Indian restaurants lately, please know that, in at least two instances, it's safe, and even fun, to venture out again.
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