Tadka and Ipotli: Go Indian for dinner, lunch, and … breakfast?
One particularly inspired Valentine's Day, I declared that we would forgo our usual routine of getting an avoid-the-crowds 5:30 p.m. dinner reservation and unspeakably gluttonous array of desserts in favor of staying in and trying to re-create some of our most memorable restaurant-meal moments from the previous year. I congratulated myself on such a cute and clever idea and went into the project guns blazing. That is, until I got to the menu-planning phase and realized how many of our favorite dishes had come from Indian restaurants. I knew a good overnight simmer would lead to a decent bolognese, and that as long as I got actual haricots verts and a quality piece of tuna the Asian-inspired Nicoise salad would be safe. Dessert would just have to include chocolate and one seemingly impressive decorating technique. But I was at a loss when it came to making the delicately fried, Indian-spiced cauliflower dish that had arrived at our table one night by glorious mistake. We'd annihilated it before even realizing we hadn't actually ordered it and have been reminiscing about it at least bimonthly ever since. That humble cauliflower was now, in a small way, a part of our history, a thread in our fabric. Moderate panic started to set in. Certainly it wouldn't cut it to throw some pre-mixed curry powder over beer-battered, deep-fried vegetables and hope for the best. No, I would have to read up, visit some stores, and most importantly, make space for a lot of new spices in my pantry. But even after scouring little Central Avenue grocery stores for fenugreek, green cardamom pods, and asafoetida (which, trust me, tastes a lot better than it smells) and experimenting with various frying techniques, I still could never match the perfect chewiness, complexity of flavor, and heady fragrance of the original.
After operation cauliflower (the dish, as it turns out, was something akin to gobi Manchurian), I eventually also learned to make a passable version of chana masala — now a go-to comfort food, especially in the winter — and am grateful to have all those flavors at the ready whenever the mood strikes. Since lentils, rice, chickpeas, potatoes, and canned tomatoes are common base ingredients in many Indian dishes, you can also make most of this food on the cheap. That's probably what contributed to the slight sticker shock I experienced at my first visit to Tadka Indian Bistro on Lake and Emerson in Uptown. We weren't drinking wine or beer and, apart from having an entire order of naan apiece, didn't get an exorbitant amount of food. We started with an order of tasty if a little dense veggie pakora, a small dish of badam kheer (a mild rice pudding with a scattering of nuts), a pappadum (basically a huge, thin chip made with lentil flour batter), murgh saffron (one of Tadka's signature dishes, which even when ordered "medium" was pleasantly nostril-clearing), and a lamb vindaloo (which was dry and rather mild by comparison). How did we rack up a $70 bill? Learn from my mistake and do not, when confronted with the burning heat traveling down your esophagus, keep ordering rounds of Diet Coke and iced teas like you're a sorority girl woo-hooing over Alabama Slammers, because there are no free refills here. For chai or lassis I could understand, but if you're trying to keep up with the Joneses (or the Raos or Patels or any other family that owns an Indian restaurant in the Twin Cities), you've got to be a bit more generous with the nonalcoholic beverages.
Armed with that knowledge, our second experience, and a subsequent visit to the lunch buffet (a very reasonable $9.95 for about eight hot options, some cold salads, chutneys, fabulous Indian pickles, and cold desserts), were more positive, especially with the vegetarian dishes. Though one of the main reasons owners B.K. and Ameeta Arora decided to rename, rebrand, and reopen the former Delights of India was to gain a wider, more carnivorous audience, it's clear they lack some confidence in handling meat. But there are plenty of hearty meat-free options, like the standout favorite malai kofta. It's a mixture of paneer, potatoes, and other vegetables formed into a soft hybrid of a dumpling and a meatless meatball — particularly delicious when scooped up with the sweet raisins and turmeric-tinted cream sauce they're served with. The baigan bartha with mashed, Tandoori-roasted eggplant and fresh peas was silken, earthy, and superior to the chicken version, which was tender but unfortunately also littered with small bone shards.
The good news is that, though the menu is fairly predictable and sticks mainly to northern and central Indian cuisine, you won't find a dull dish, thanks to an Indian cooking technique called tadka. Tadka involves toasting whole spices in ghee (clarified butter) or other cooking oil to slowly release the full, robust flavor within. Takda Indian Bistro has been open only about two months, so perhaps it will follow the path of its namesake technique and require more time in the pan (and working with meat) before its full taste potential is unlocked.
We had some good dishes at Tadka, but all the curries, dals, and chaats left me with an unshakable craving for dosas, the Indian version of a crepe, usually made with fermented rice batter, and Tadka didn't have them on the menu. So naturally we would have to take to the ... skyway? Strange but true, there is a great little Indian grab-and-go place above street level at Sixth and Marquette called Ipotli (get it? Like Chipotle, and the logo looks almost identical) Indian Grill. It's mostly doing standard takeaway food for lunch and dinner, such as chicken tikka masala, curry bowls, and vegetable biryani, but I was most intrigued by the fact that it serves something that, as far as I know, no other local Indian restaurant does: breakfast.
If you're really fanatical about Indian flavors and don't dig on sweet pastries and cereals for breakfast, Ipotli offers a superb start to your morning. Naturally probiotic, fairly low-sugar mango lassis and homemade almond milk make interesting and refreshing alternatives to coffee (which Ipotli does serve, but with a Dunn Bros. so close by there's no point in ordering it there). They do doughnuts here, too, but instead of being coated with powdered sugar, Ipotli's are savory and served with a vibrant green, chile-steeped, lentil-based sauce for dipping. You can also get them with a little plain yogurt to help tone down the heat of the sauce. Doughnuts and coffee are all well and good, but the shining stars of the Ipotli breakfast menu are the dosas. There's the lentil oatmeal dosa, the egg dosa (like a fluttery, paper-thin plain omelet wrapped in a rice and lentil crepe), and the outstanding spicy dosa. Why hasn't anyone started a dosa food truck? Send me a link to that Kickstarter project and I promise I will back it, especially if you can replicate these lacy-edged spicy dosas. Two lentil crepes are melded together by a thin layer of fiery tomato-based paste, folded into quarters for easy handling, and served with the same doughnut dipping sauce. Even if you don't take the skyway to work, these are worth going out of your way for.
Both Tadka and Ipotli have their share of scratches and dents, but there is definitely room for both of them in our restaurant scene: Tadka, for its ability to pump out some excellent vegetarian delights in a friendly, family-owned atmosphere, and Ipotli for bringing a portable feast of Indian flavors to our often sterile skyway system. No more settling for a muffin in the morning: Dosas are a breakfast revelation.
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