JEWEL OF INDIA
1427 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.; 339-0002
AFTER MUCH anticipation, the Jewel of India has opened its doors next to the small theaters, bars, and cafes that breathe life into the West Bank. And the promise of it becoming a great restaurant seems to lurk just around the seven corners. It's still distant, but not unforeseeable.
It could be that things are too new to be completely comfortable. The place has a bit of a showroom feel to it. Various items on the menu weren't available on either of our visits, and, despite what the menu claims, I was told that takeout is not an option. But don't let these minor gripes furrow your brow too much, as you'll find some unique and pleasing offerings here.
Jewel of India's menu is expansive. Appetizers consist of various combinations of pakora--fried morsels of vegetables, shrimp, and chicken--and samosa, all served with a dish of tasty mint sauce. The vegetarian platter ($6.95) we tried was superb; the samosa crisp and piping hot, laden with mildly curried potatoes and green peas; and the pakora, made primarily with cauliflower and potatoes deep-fried in chick pea batter, were also as hot and comforting as you could hope for. Soups here are also lovely, a medium-sized bowl of which will only set you back $1.95. Our table favored the tomato soup, peppery and thick with zucchini, carrots, and weighty chunks of tomato. The mulligatawny ran a close second, a delicately herbed purée of lentils and tomatoes topped with fresh cilantro that was pleasantly redolent of nutmeg. If you expected the coconut soup to be hiding any surprises, you'd be disappointed by the thin, mild broth. Maybe it just seemed to run bland in comparison to its companions.
As for entrees, there are plenty of seafood, lamb, chicken, vegetarian, and tandoori selections to choose from. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, availability is hit-or-miss. Both of our visits had us scrambling for second and third choices when we found tandoor lobster ($14.95), crab malabar ($12.95), and mughlai chicken ($9.95) were not to be had; maybe you'll have more luck. What we ended up with pleased us just fine, though. The lamb kadai ($9.95) was tasty: pieces of lamb that had been tenderly sautéed in a wok with thin slices of onion, garlic, and tomatoes, spiced hot enough to inspire a summery flush. It was a difficult decision, but eventually we went for the sibilant aloo gobi palak ($6.50) over the bhindi masala (whole okra stuffed with spices and cooked with onions and peppers, $7.95) for my vegetarian friend. Her reward was a sizzling silver dish of seasoned spinach, cauliflower florets, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions that was creamy and decadent. Same for the dal makni ($5.95) that showed up at our table mistakenly (though the waiter was kind enough to leave it without charge), a silky, luxurious dish of lentils and tomatoes cooked in butter, heavily accented with onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and coriander. All entrees are served with fine basmati rice and chutney, and the breads we tried with our meal, garlic naan ($1.95) and mint paratha ($2.50), were both delicious.
A second visit proved disappointing. The vegetable samosa ($1.99) we had loved was running cold, served with a runny and sweet tamarind sauce instead of the mint. A meagerly portioned plate of lamb curry ($8.95) arrived lukewarm and bland. One guesses this was an exception to the rule; it was an exceedingly busy night. Service was cheerful if a little rushed, and our waitress was as jovial as could be under the circumstances. Nonalcoholic drinks (no license yet) and desserts are consistent, with a delicate rose water-flavored kulfi ($2.50); a rich basmati rice pudding served with almonds and pistachios ($1.95); firni, a custard pudding also flavored with pistachios and almonds ($2.50); and the heavy ras malai, cheese balls and nuts floating about in sweetened milk and rose water.
Taking everything into account, I'd say that if the Jewel of India works out a few kinks, it'll be around for some time. Judging by the crowds, I'm sure there are plenty of folks willing to help make this so.
SPUR-OF-THE-MOMENT SPLENDORS: If you're an expert at hunting down big fat luxuries, you may want to scramble over to Jax Cafe (1928 University Ave., Mpls.) for a table at Jax's Annual Hunter's Dinner, being held Wednesday, Oct. 25. The $40-per-person dinner (tax and gratuity not included) includes a place at the hors d'oeuvre buffet, where you can pop snatches of applewood-smoked trout with dill mustard sauce and French bread, grilled rattlesnake cakes, smoked salmon, and braised ringneck pheasant with cabernet sauce (among other treats) from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Afterwards enjoy a leisurely meal that includes a mixed-green hunter's salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette, and a big old slab of New Zealand red deer with trimmings fit you tie you into a knot of pleasure. Then as you balance a plate of warm bread pudding with whiskey sauce on your plumped-up belly, wonder why you let so much time go between visits to the Jax Cafe. Call 789-7297 for reservations... On the other side of town, you still have a day or so to catch the tail end of Caravan Serai's 25-year anniversary celebration that's been going on this month. The Caravan, long loved for its sumptuous setting and menu featuring treasures from Afghanistan, North India, Greece, and the Middle East, has revamped its menu this summer. New items include chilled mango chicken salad and biriyani, an aromatic rice dish with assorted fresh vegetables, raisins, fresh ginger and cinnamon. For a fleeting two days (Oct. 25-26), enjoy a complete dinner for two for a mere $25; if you're extra lucky, perhaps you'll land a $25 Caravan gift certificate in one of the nightly drawings. Maybe you'll even take the grand prize for limited-edition wines and $250 in cash. If you don't have time to linger among the silk cushions under the tent in the dining room, stop in at the deli/cafe next door, where you can choose from a full menu of delicious appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees available for eating in or taking out. The Caravan is located at 2175 Ford Parkway in St. Paul; call 690-1935 for reservations.
AN EVENING'S ESCAPE: Looking for something out of the ordinary? Hoping to get out of these city walls for an eyeful of lawns, gardens, a bit of antique opulence, and a mouthful of ambrosia? Embark then on a Culinary Outing at the Outing Lodge at Pine Point, near Stillwater. These "outings" consist of various theme dinners, served at one long, elaborate table encircled by candle wall sconces and set in front of a massive fireplace. Outings in the near future include "Babette's Feast" (Oct. 27-28), "Wild Game Dinner" (Nov. 4), "Thanksgiving at the Lodge," "English Christmas Party," and "Russian New Year's Party." Dinners are limited to 50 people, so call early to insure your place. For more information about the menus and to receive your own Culinary Outings calendar, call 439-9747.
SCARY MERRIMENT: Watching old horror movies and dressing up in the devil costume your mother sewed for you years ago not scary enough for you? Well then, experience hell in (where else?) the Mall of America, Fat Tuesday's to be precise. Yes, on Saturday Oct. 28 at 8 p.m., Fat Tuesday's hosts a Disco Hell Halloween Ball in conjunction with The Edge radio station. Fat Tuesday's will be decked with disco balls and strobe lights as Saturday Night Fever music pumps through the house. A traditional Halloween costume contest with cash prizes, a live DJ, and giveaways from The Edge will add to the festivities. Call 851-9032 for more information. Don't get too soused, though, because you'll be wanting to go down to the Croatian Hall (445 Second Ave. S., South St. Paul; 451-1453) for the First Annual Halloweenie Feed afterwards. This art-and-meat raffle comes complete with live music via Trailer Trash and a cash bar...
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES: Bothered by smoke spoiling the smell of your escargot? The Association for Nonsmokers has published a list of smoke-free restaurants in Minnesota. The book, Smoke-Free Dining in Minnesota: A Consumer's Guide, lists over 680 smoke-free restaurants throughout Minnesota. Free copies of the directory are available from ANSR; just call 646-3005 or write to 2395 University Ave. W., Suite 310, St. Paul, MN 55114-1512 to receive yours.
CHARITABLE WINING AND DINING: On Friday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m., the Modena-St. Paul Sister City Corporation will sponsor "A Northern Italian Feast: Wine, Dinner and Serenade" at the Venetian Inn, 2814 Rice St., St. Paul. The event begins with a silent auction featuring several items from professional athletes, Luciano Pavarotti memorabilia, and other authentic Italian items, and ends with a performance of arias by local opera singers. Sandwiched between is a multi-course dinner featuring fine foods and wines from the Emilia-Romagna region. All proceeds from this event will go to support the Modena-St. Paul Student Exchange Program. Tickets to this event are $45 ($20 tax deductible).
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