4022 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights; (612) 782-9678
Hours: Daily lunch buffet 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner menu 5:00 to 9:30 p.m.
1123 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; (612) 823-2866
Hours: Lunch buffet Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sunday 12:30-2:30 p.m. dinner Monday-Saturday 5:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Sunday 2:30-9:30 p.m.
Dorothy Parker once noted that there were certain bachelors who inspired in certain women inspired an unstoppable urge to start presenting swaths of chintz and books of wallpaper patterns. I'm here to note that there are certain restaurants that spark the same impulse. I have yet to have a meal at Sahib's or Moghals during which I'm not completely distracted with schemes for adjusting the lighting, table linens, floors, and wall coverings for enhanced effect.
Don't get me wrong: Both of these Indian restaurants do stand-up jobs putting out decent food with speed and courtesy. But neither has that special something that makes it feel like, well, something special. And I have a hunch that the missing ingredient is chintz. Not chintz, per se, of course. Halogen lights. Steel objets. Silken draperies. Flickering candlelight. Something, anything other than fluorescent lights and smoky ceiling-height mirrors (Sahib's) or 360-degree dark-wood paneling (Moghals).
My décor obsession didn't, however, stop me from conducting a compare-and-contrast experiment on these two spots, one located on the Central Avenue strip that is fast turning into an Indian Eat Street, the other a few blocks off Lake and Hennepin. On a succession of winter nights, I sampled a wide variety of essentially the same dishes at both places: Vegetable samosas ($2.95 at Sahib's, $3.95 at Moghals); a Tandoori appetizer sampler ($6.95/$8.95); vegetable curry ($7.50/$8.95); lamb biryani ($9.95/$10.95); a fish entrée (fish tikka at Sahib's, fish masala at Moghals, both $9.95); beef and chicken vindaloo ($9.95); and, for breads, onion kulcha ($2.50) and Tandoori roti ($1.25/$1.75). Later I went back for the all-you-can-eat lunch buffets (both $5.95), where I got to try the spinach-based dishes palak paneer (on the menu at Sahib's for $7.95), and alu palak (on the menu at Moghals for $8.95), as well as the cauliflower-and-potato stew alu gobi ($6.95 at Sahib's, $9.95 at Moghals), the house naan, and a bunch of other stuff. I can't recommend this approach enough; it's just astonishing how different, and how similar, two restaurants can be.
At Sahib's (pictured), anything tikka or tandoori was excellent. The kitchen here excels these barbecuelike styles: The fish tikka--firm chunks of fish marinated in lemon and spice and served on a sizzling platter--was probably the very best dish I tried. The seekh kabob, made of ground, spiced, grilled lamb, was crusty, pungent, and delicious; both chicken tikka and tandoori chicken were fragrant and moist, not dry the way roast bird so often is.
The samosas, pyramids of vegetables and potatoes wrapped in dough and deep-fried, were tender and powerfully, attractively scented with cardamom. The onion kulcha, a soft white bread stuffed with chopped, sautéed onions, was buttery and delectable; the tandoori roti was everything it should be, whole wheat giving nice heft and definition to the unleavened pan bread.
Yet in many other instances, the food at Sahib's seemed as unconsidered as the plum-colored vinyl that cloaks the tables. The curry had been cooked for so long the vegetables had lost any flavor of their own; the lamb in the biryani rice dish approached the texture of leather. The chicken vindaloo wasn't the fiery, multidimensional stew of chiles and tomatoes I was hoping for; instead it seemed merely hot.
At the dozen-plus-item buffet, I found nearly every dish, save the chicken tandoori and the crisp naan, tired and lackluster, and I was particularly disappointed in the palak paneer: When done expertly this dish of creamed spinach with homemade cheese can be a lively contrast of the garden-bright with the silky-rich, but here it was salty and indistinct. The alu gobi is one of those dishes you can use to test a kitchen: If the cauliflower is still a bit crisp while the potatoes retain a hint of sweetness, you've got a perfect rendition. But here the vegetables were as soft as those that might accompany a pot roast.
Of course, there are plenty of second acts in Minneapolis restaurant life, and since Sahib's plans to soon tweak its menu and add beer and wine service, it might take the opportunity to focus on what the kitchen does well.
That's the advice I would also offer to Moghals, another restaurant that seems to suffer from its determination to cover all the bases. At the modest, four-entrée lunch buffet, I didn't find anything to love: The alu palak--potatoes with spinach--was runny and salty, the chicken curry lukewarm and unoriginal. Dinner also started out on an off note: All the items in the tandoori combo tasted merely like grilled meat, without the complexity of spice that makes the preparation worthwhile.
I had better luck with the appetizers and breads. Vegetable samosas were very good, the wrapping tender and toothsome, the center fresh. Onion kulcha bread was delightfully light and pillowy, the filling made with sliced scallions and a hint of fresh ginger, and the poori was delectable in the way hot, fresh fried bread always is.
The curry--big, hand-cut chunks of vegetables in a mild, mellow curry sauce--was fine, but nothing more; fish masala also failed to impress, smothered as it was in a buttery, onion-heavy sauce. Beef vindaloo was nicely sour, but otherwise a letdown, and I particularly wished for a less fatty cut of beef. The big surprise here was the lamb biryani: Rich, creamy, and loaded with almonds and dried fruit, it smelled like Christmas pudding and was as good as dessert, tender pieces of stewed lamb notwithstanding. (Moghals also serves a vegetable biryani for $9.95.)
The bottom line? Both Sahib's and Moghals are neighborhood restaurants worth cultivating if you live nearby, but neither is good enough to justify the drive from elsewhere. Which is amusing, given that I ended up at both places after locals kept telling me about what they considered underappreciated gems. I guess this tendency to forgive weakness is what separates local favorites from destination restaurants.
That, and some fancy chintz. Or interesting art. Something. Heaven knows, I'm not suggesting that little neighborhood outfits should be held to strict account for their interior design, but in these cases the décor seemed to symbolize a lack of interest in doing any one thing very well (except for the aforementioned tikka and tandoori at Sahib's). Is this a chicken-or-egg problem? Do bachelors stop dating because they've given up on women--or do they give up on women because they've stopped dating? I don't know, but surely Dorothy Parker would put everyone to rights.
WHO NEEDS FISH? As part of my Year 2000 project to ferret out local vegan dining options, I set out to sample the animal-free selections at Fuji-Ya, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S., (612) 871-4055, and it went swimmingly. I started with some cold salads including spinach goma ($4.25), which is spinach cooked and served chilled with a dressing of sweet soy sauce and agedashi tofu--a salad of flash-fried cubes of tofu and ginger, grated daikon, and green onion ($4.95); ordinarily the dish is garnished with bonito, or tuna, flakes, but I had those held. I also tried some fresh and light harumaki, or vegetarian egg rolls ($3.95), which came with an enjoyable hot-and-sour mustard dipping sauce.
I moved on to an incredibly filling lunch of buckwheat soba noodles ($6.95) in a fragrant, salty broth, accompanied by what seemed like an enormous quantity of vegetable tempura featuring sweet potatoes, parsley, zucchini, and onions. Later I realized that, being merely a tourist in the vegan universe, I had neglected to ask if the dashi, or soup base, was made with bonito flakes, as is customary: In fact it was, but co-owner Tom Hanson says that on request the restaurant will use an all-mushroom dashi.
Other vegan options include miso soups, a ginger salad ($3), and vegetable sushi including futo maki ($5.50), hand rolls made with spinach, cucumber, pickles, egg custard, squash, shiitake mushrooms, and deep-fried tofu (inari); of course, you can have the egg custard left out. Hanson says Fuji-Ya has so very many vegetarian items because the neighborhood demands it--though, he notes, "generally we don't get many hard-core vegans. It seems like they are mainly trying to avoid meat." While I was at it, I complimented Hanson on Fuji-Ya's oshinko, the traditional fermented pickles, telling him that I thought he had the area's best pickle platter. That's thanks to Carol, his wife and co-owner, he explained: "Carol makes great pickles. We usually have three all winter and sometimes as many as six when other vegetables come into season. Actually, that's a typical Japanese meal right there: A bowl of rice, a plate of pickles, and a beer. What's better than that?"
SPEAKING OF FISH: Not too long ago I mediated yet another emotionally overwrought confrontation between an avowed vegetarian and a local Southeast Asian restaurant. It went the way these arguments always do: After years of ordering from what she thought was a largish selection of vegetarian options, the diner had discovered that many of the dishes contained a bit of fish sauce (a brew based on fermented tiny fish) or shrimp paste (made from sun-dried teensy shrimp). The vegetarian felt she had been lied to. The owner thought her business was being unfairly attacked.
My inclination, after much consideration, is to side with the restaurateur: It seems more reasonable to expect the vegetarian to learn about the basic building blocks of the cuisine she's experimenting with than to demand that the rural Laotian anticipate a specific vegetarian's requirements--especially since so many people use "vegetarian" to mean that they eat fish, but not meat. I also suspect that all of these conflicts could be avoided if vegetarians explained their needs to the people they're buying food from, ideally before establishing long-term relationships.
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