Taste of India, 1609 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 788-3190. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
About the time most of our ancestors were running around in loincloths, scribbling on cave walls and throwing rocks at woolly mammoths, the cooks of India were developing the art of cuisine.
For thousands of years, exotic herbs and spices have been the keys to Indian food, unleashing tantalizing aromas and seductive flavors.
But these seasonings do more than just enhance taste; they also balance the properties of certain foods. Asafetida, an antiflatulent, is routinely added to lentil preparations. Fenugreek staves off indigestion. Different spices also work best at different times of the year. Black cardamom and ginger are considered "warm" spices, best suited for hearty, cold-weather dishes. Cloves and fennel, on the other hand, are "cool," and often laced in refreshing summer drinks.
Sophisticated, unfamiliar and a bit pricey, Indian food has yet to burst through the American restaurant barrier. While hundreds of Chinese, Italian and Mexican restaurants flourish in the Valley, there are fewer than a dozen Indian outlets. A new one is Taste of India, run by friendly, English-accented Indians just arrived in town.
It's a spiffy, casual place, but with touches of elegance like a pretty, floral carpet and a long, oak bar. The Indian theme is lightly handled--no high-decibel Ravi Shankar music intrudes on the meal. Instead, we heard low Hindi "oldies," which got Anu and Ratan, my Indian companions, humming.
Eye-catching cloth prints, highlighted with sequins, play out scenes from the poetry of Omar Khayy m. A dartboard by the bar provides the only other visual diversion.
Happily, the food offers plenty of gustatory excitement.
Some robust appetizers suggested that Taste of India was not simply going through the motions. Cheese pakora are fritters, cubed bits of homemade cheese (paneer), fragrant with mint leaves, dipped in batter and deep-fried. Onion bhaji are more like onion pancakes, with a marvelous chickpea coating. They leave their American counterparts, mozzarella sticks and onion rings, in the dust, especially if you dip them in the spicy mint chutney or tart tamarind relish.
Bread is the test of an Indian kitchen, and Taste of India's has a quality and variety that are unequaled in the Valley. Bhatura, deep-fried, leavened bread, is much like Navajo fry bread--thick, puffy and doughy. Aloo paratha, whole-wheat bread stuffed with potatoes and spices, and naan, cooked up in the tandoor, a ferociously hot clay oven, just about made the rest of the meal superfluous.
But then we would have missed the superb Indian fare, in dreamy sauces, served up in somewhat-less-than-generous portions. Chicken makhni is tandoori-baked chicken simmered in a gorgeous, buttery tomato sauce, accented with cumin. The clay oven thoroughly cooks the chicken while keeping it meltingly moist.
Shrimp korma features fresh, firm crustaceans braised in a scrumptious, thick, velvety coconut sauce. The combination of textures imparts terrific mouth appeal to this dish.
Lamb kashmiry brought reasonably tender hunks of lamb in a heady, almost otherworldly cream sauce. This time the air was heavy with the fragrance of apples and pears. Combined with almonds and quick-fried spices, then blended into a rich sauce, the ingredients inspired so much pleasure that we feared there must have been something illegal or immoral about them.
Vegetarians often gripe about the slim pickings in the Valley. But Indian vegetable dishes are a great alternative to the sprout-laden platters that darken local restaurants. The Hindu proscription of beef, and the Moslem injunction against pork, helped create an astonishing variety of meatless fare. (Neither beef nor pork is served here.) And Taste of India does a particularly fine job.
Americans tend to associate okra with the bayou, and with bland, mushy, slimy stews. In India, though, it's saut‚ed in hot oil and combined with spices. The nifty version here, bhindi masala, has lots of crunch, lots of zip and lots of flavor.
Just as appealing is bengan bhartha, starring versatile eggplant. The eggplant is roasted, pur‚ed and mixed with a spice rack full of seasonings, with an extra-strong dose of ginger.
Most interesting among the 13 vegetarian offerings is malai kofta, little vegetable meatballs blended with paneer, simmered with butter and cream in a light, aromatic tomato sauce.
All the dishes come … la carte, and it's necessary to order some basmati rice to accompany them. This isn't much of a hardship--the naturally perfumed rice will amply demonstrate why 700 million Indians can't be wrong. Aficionados can also get achar, violently hot pickled fruit and vegetables--not on the menu--that go well with vegetarian food.
Indian desserts don't translate too well in the West. But adventurous diners shouldn't miss ras malai, an intricate Bengali treat of pistachio-flecked sweet milk and cheese. A bit lower on the exotic scale is mango kulfi, a kind of Indian ice cream made from thickened milk. Even if you skip dessert, don't forget to leave room for Indian tea. It's a milky, cardamom-scented brew that may tempt you to toss away your coffee mug forever. Taste of India, on its own, may not be enough to tear down the wall between Indian food and mass popularity. But it's certainly going to be able to make a few dents.
Jewel of the Crown, 4141 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 840-2412. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Jewel of the Crown takes a path different from that of Taste of India to widen Indian food's appeal. While the decor here is more relentlessly Indian, the food seems less so. The fare is definitely toned down, less aggressively ethnic.
It's a handsome place, in a Scottsdale sort of way. Embroidered fabric is framed on the wall and underneath the glass tabletop. Four-foot-high, carved and painted screens add a pleasing touch of intimacy to the room. Tasseled strips of appliqu‚d elephants ring the top of the wall, looking down on hanging native garments. Blessedly, there's not a bit of piped-in music.
You'd be as hard-pressed to divine the ethnic background of the chicken pakora appetizer as you would to guess the ethnic roots of Tipper Gore. Five thick strips of white-meat chicken sit inside a fast-food-type batter. It's moderately tasty, and completely undistinguished. Fortunately, two fetching dips, one tamarind, one mint cilantro, perked this starter up considerably.
Vegetable samosa, a traditional snack, is potatoes stuffed into a crispy, deep-fried, flaky pastry crust. At two to an order, there's no danger of filling up before the main dishes arrive.
The breads, a highlight of any Indian meal, were a huge disappointment. Even when fresh out of the oven, they barely have the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised every human on the planet. Jewel of the Crown's naan and paratha seemed to have spent most of their allotted quarter-hour of acclaim sitting back in the kitchen.
The main dishes come in cute, two-handled copper pots. Very small, two-handled copper pots. Portions here aren't less-than-generous--they're positively miserly. And they're each about two bucks more than Taste of India's. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the difference between Scottsdale commercial rents and Bell Road strip-mall rates.
Jewel of the Crown offers the usual wide variety of masalas, kormas, saags, vindaloos and biriyanis, with beef, lamb, chicken or shrimp.
Vindaloo is a fiery-hot and pungent, mustard-laced curry from Goa, the former enclave of Portuguese Christians. The shrimp in our vindaloo was topnotch, but the dish wasn't nearly as hot as advertised. It didn't need the few cubes of potatoes the menu says serve as a fire extinguisher. In fact, the potatoes did better service as an appetite extinguisher in this tiny, $12.95 entree. Chicken tandoori, grilled in the clay oven, is excellent, a small half-chicken bursting with long-marinated taste. I don't know why the kitchen held back on the sizzling onions, though--they're an essential part of this dish, and not a costly one.
Lamb saag is the best item we sampled. Tender lamb morsels float in a delicate, creamy spinach sauce, redolent with fragrant spices. It's incredibly complex, like a fine wine, and just as satisfying.
Beef korma, though, furnished uninspiring hunks of beef in a dull, yogurt-based sauce, with none of the rich, nut taste we were promised. Maybe the kitchen doesn't have its heart in beef dishes.
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Bharta makhni, mild, tandoori-roasted eggplant thickened with tomato and butter, lacked ethnic pungency. It certainly couldn't improve the wonderful, cardamom-and-fennel-flecked basmati rice.
The three dessert choices here are sweet enough to require a fluoride chaser. Gulab jamun are fried pastry balls smothered in syrup; kulfi is pistachio-studded ice cream; and kheer is a silky rice pudding sprinkled with almonds. They're an acquired taste, and unfortunately for my waistline, I've acquired all three.
The postprandial Indian tea was a real letdown. Though zestily spiced, it was almost insultingly lukewarm. Tea is too important to be served like this, even to foreigners.
Jewel of the Crown is a bit of a tease--in neither taste nor value does it take you all the way. I was sated, but not satisfied.