After a few years spent in the shadows of a Twin Cities Thai food and sushi boom, south Asian cuisine is having its rightful moment in the spotlight. Four new restaurants and one weekly curry-night dinner serve up the complex spice blends characteristic to north and south India, Tibet, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Bring on the biryani, momos, and chutney—and never pass up the chance to order a mango lassi.
Amu's Madras Cafe
4920 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights
763.571.5576 appetizers $4-$5; entrées $7-$12
For years, 4920 Central Avenue in Columbia Heights has been the Twin Cities' go-to spot for south Indian food, first as Udupi, then as Nala Pak, and now as the new Amu's Madras Café. The dining room looks as dull as ever, but that keeps the focus on the stellar south Indian vegetarian cuisine prepared by Udupi's former chef.
North Indian cuisine dominates the Twin Cities market, and the menu at Amu's offers several hard-to-find dishes. For starters, the south Indian dosai: giant, crisp, paper-thin crepes rolled up and often filled with a scoop of mashed vegetables. The dosa's tangy flavor comes from its fermented, ground rice/lentil batter, and it's delicious enough to make you want to hold the thing up like a megaphone and alert everyone at the neighboring Sonic to what they're missing.
The spice blends at Amu's are good enough to distract even die-hard carnivores from missing meat. For example, the gobi Manchurian, or fried cauliflower fritters coated with a Chinese-style spicy tomato-garlic sauce, could satisfy any junk-food craving. The Hyderabad-style Bhagar 'e' Baigan curry features baby eggplant simmered to melting tenderness in a nutty gravy that tastes both new and familiar. Paneer served in a classically rich, creamy-tart butter masala achieves dish-licking status.
During lunch, Amu's $8.49 buffet is a remarkable bargain, offering several hot entrée options supplemented with a potato-filled dosa, a basket of naan, and an entire table's worth of desserts.
Bukhara Indian Bistro
15718 Wayzata Blvd. E., Minnetonka
appetizers $3-$9; entrées $9-$21
Bukhara Indian Bistro, which replaced the former Istanbul Bistro on 394, brings classic strip-mall ethnic eats to an area that lacked them. The restaurant is operated by Joginder Cheema, a pioneer of the local Indian food scene who formerly owned several Taste of India and India Palace restaurants and owns three India House restaurants.
Bukhara serves a relatively short list of north Indian Mughal food, including such classics as palak paneer and lamb vindaloo. The tomato-based sauces on shrimp masala and vegetable makhani are bright and intense, smothering perfectly cooked seafood and vegetables. Prepared with medium heat, both dishes leave a warm afterglow that can be cooled with a bite of the accompanying raita or lentils.
The kitchen is proudest of its kebabs, which are prepared by rubbing spices directly into the meat before cooking it in a tandoor. The technique turns out chicken tikka with a firm but tender texture. A yogurt marinade lends a sour tang to the meat, and the clay oven imparts a pleasant smokiness.
The restaurant has a spare but comfortable feel, and its location, just west of the Carlson Parkway exit, should make it a popular takeout stop for commuters.
Darbar India Grill
1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
appetizers $5-$13; entrées $11-$20
Darbar India Grill puts an upscale spin on a typically casual cuisine—the same approach as its two predecessors at 1221 W. Lake Street, Pizza Nea and Indio. Although another Indian restaurant, Delights of India, is right across the street, Darbar distinguishes itself from Uptown's limited south Asian options with an ambiance that's more date-worthy than hole-in-the-wall.
The dining room has been redecorated in a pretty palette of blues and oranges with gold accents. Carved wooden elephants and a mural of a glamorous, Bollywood-style star give the space a feel that's authentic yet contemporary. With its free-range chicken and specialty cocktail list, Darbar is positioned a notch above cheap eats—too classy for a lunch buffet. It's not as ambitious, in culinary terms, as downtown Minneapolis's ultra-chic Om, but it also doesn't call for nearly the funds or formality.
Darbar's owner, Diljit Singh, operates four India Palace restaurants in the Twin Cities suburbs, and the new restaurant's menu, impressive for its breadth, largely overlaps with those of the others. It includes all the ubiquitous items like chana masala, but also harder-to-find fare, such as south Indian idly, or steamed rice/lentil patties. The curries I sampled—chicken jalfrezi and a lamb rogan josh—were both solid executions without being particularly outstanding.
I would recommend skipping the chili pakora, India's answer to jalapeño poppers or chile relleños, which are jalapeño peppers stuffed with paneer and mashed potatoes and fried in chickpea batter. Between the chickpea crust, the potatoes, and the crumbly cheese, they're just too dry to be palatable.
Though Darbar has an elegant ambiance, the service still has an amateur feel: friendly, indeed, but somehow chaotic, noteworthy for its absence or redundancy instead of its seamlessness.
23 Fourth St. NE, Minneapolis
appetizers $4-$12; entrées $10-$15
Rashmi Bhattachan knows momos, the Himalayan steamed dumplings that she sold for several years at the Mill City Farmers Market. She offers the pert, handmade buns at her new restaurant, Gorkha Palace, still sealed with a twist to look like a squashed soft-serve swirl. The momos are typically filled with scallions and spiced meats—try the yak, which is delicious, and not too different from ground beef.
Bhattachan launched her restaurant in the former home of Mairin's Table in partnership with Sarala Kattel, who formerly cooked at the Himalayan restaurant on Franklin Avenue. The restaurant is on a tucked-away block between Surdyk's and Ground Zero, but its small dining room has a welcoming feel, its walls and banquette upholstery awash in the warm, earthy tones of chiles, turmeric, and garam masala.
The two Nepali women are offering a seasonally changing menu of mostly Nepali and Indian dishes with a few Tibetan items in the mix. The more common dishes are as good as any. Tandoor-baked chicken sekuwa is tender, smoky, and expertly seasoned. Curries such as the machha, or tilapia, version are subtly but richly seasoned.
But the more unusual dishes are also rewarding. Aaloo katahar blends potatoes with jackfruit, a savory fruit that's rarely seen in the Twin Cities, and which has a similar flavor and texture to an artichoke. Gorkha serves a stew with locally raised goat, in lieu of beef, that challenges the meat's unpleasantly gamey, greasy reputation. Sure, there are a few bones and mysterious, unchewable cartilage bites, but the flesh itself is some of the best-tasting goat I've ever had, reminiscent of pork or lamb. (Bhattachan says she believes the less-funky flavor is because they use meat from castrated goats.)
The naan at Gorkha is less greasy than most, though it has the bland, floury flavor of matzo. The daal I tried was disappointing, as it seemed soupy and under-seasoned, but the spicier eight-bean soup, kwati, is a satisfying substitute.
Also worth noting: Gorkha is one of the few ethnic restaurants in town to emphasize sustainable business practices by purchasing local meats and dairy and operating a composting program.
Every Monday night, Heather Jansz, the chef and cookbook author known as the "Curry Diva," spices up the Highland Grill's menu with a few of her fragrantly spiced Sri Lankan specials. Jansz, who used to run the Sri Lanka Curry House and Curry Leaf Deli and now is a private caterer who also teaches cooking classes, started the weekly restaurant stint this summer as a way to reach more of her fans. "I have so many followers, it's like a cult," she says. "Everyone's asking, 'Will you cook for me?' But I can't just have every human being show up to my house."
The roti—flatbreads that are ultra-thin and pasta-noodle tender, the way Jansz makes 'em—can seem like an odd thing to eat while seated at one of Highland's retro diner booths, but who cares? Especially if the roti is wrapped, like a giant meat burrito, around an inordinate amount of slow-cooked pork with rich, earthy seasoning, and topped with dal, cranberry chutney, and a coconut/cilantro sauce.
Jansz varies her offerings each week. Recently she featured dishes from Nepal as a fundraiser for a nonprofit that does work in that country: a cumin-and-coriander-laced chicken curry, plus curried potatoes, along with chickpeas and leeks perked up with garam masala. The spiciest dish on the plate—a side of sambal pickle achaar, or a white-hot blend of fresh tomato, cilantro, chiles, and fenugreek—was addictive enough to be worth the requisite suffering.
Jansz also occasionally offers special curry dinners at Highland Grill's sister restaurants, including an upcoming family-style feast dubbed "Indonesian Big Night." It takes place at the Edina Grill on November 10, but if you want to go, call soon—it will likely sell out quickly.