Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

The Coupon Clippings: Oh, Little India, just wait til you grow big & strong!

Actually, it’s the size of Denver, not the subcontinent, that warrants consideration here—at least in light of the fact that, by default, this enduring metro mini-chain constitutes the biggest fish in our quiet little Indian-restaurant pond. From the standpoint of quality, however, it hardly rises like a beautiful breaching dolphin from the vast & murky stateside sea of batch-cooked curries.

In other words (to keep those metaphors flowing), the banks of this little mile-high fishing hole need broadening. And maybe they’ll get it; now that the far more sophisticated India’s Pearl is circling, smelling blood, maybe joints like Little India will gradually sink (or get swallowed) or swim. But judging by the meal we recently had delivered from the S. Downing branch (using a coupon for 10% off), at present it’s just treading.

Mind you, in so doing it produces a solid example of Indian cuisine as most Americans understand & want it—Punjabi comfort food on a spectrum ranging from moderately authentic to mostly pseudo. Take our pals’ chicken tikka masala, whose origins, while uncertain, are most likely British.

LIchickenmasala

Basically what we’re talking here is chicken in tomato cream sauce. Minus the standard Indian spicing, it could be Italian pollo con sugo di pomodoro alla crema, or French poulet sauce aurore, or 100 other dishes from around the world. For that matter, it could be lamb masala (for which said apparently masalamaniac pals also opted).

LIlambmasala

Because under a foot of sauce, even when we’re talking lamb, we might as well be talking chicken, for all the impact the meat has on flavor.

Ditto the Director’s lamb vindaloo, which, sadly, doesn’t really come tilted at a 45-degree angle.

LIlambvindaloo

But it does come oversauced—or, rather, undermeated. It isn’t a question of ethnic authenticity so much as kitchen generosity; next to this,

P13

for instance, it looks less like lamb vindaloo than just, you know, vindaloo. Tastewise, meanwhile, it was more like vindal, hold the ooh. I mean, it was hot, but not so hot I couldn’t eat it, which is pretty much the defining characteristic of a proper vindaloo as I understand it: something I don’t have the guts in any sense to go through with.

As for my lamb saag,

LIlambsaag

its mildly cumin-smoky creaminess was lovely enough, but again, I simply prefer more lamb & spinach in my lamb & spinach, as opposed to more yogurt (cf.

Saag ).

Finally, the mixed grill turned out to be a mixed bag: the chicken too tough, the fish too dry, the shrimp—while surprising juicy next to the fish—too few, numbering 2. The more abundant seekh kebab, however, was also moist & spiced right.

LImixedgrill

In sum, Little India strikes me as a euphemism for Stunted India. Unless management grows the balls to expand the kitchen’s horizons—&, since they’re doing just fine ball-less, I doubt they will at my lone behest—I’ll stick with India’s Pearl, mature beyond its years (months, rather) in its willingness to offer something (pages of somethings, in fact) different.

Little India on Urbanspoon

Dinner & a Movie 5: Nerdcore Rising & India’s Pearl takeout

If you missed it last night, & if you miss it tonight due to the lateness of the hour at which this post will be published, & if your taste in music has always run the knowingly goofy gamut of hyperarticulate misfits from, say, Camper van Beethoven & They Might Be GiantsfIREHOSE to Mates of State & The Decemberists & Flight of the Conchords, like mine has, then you simply mustn’t miss the final screenings of Nerdcore Rising at the Starz FilmCenter tomorrow, Sunday 11/9.

The cinematic equivalent of a fluffernutter—freaky, irresistible, nowhere-but-American—this doc follows MC Frontalot, pioneer of a hip hop subgenre known as nerdcore, on tour with a repertoire of fledgling cult classics like “Crime Spree”—

MC Frontalot: the arch criminal for some reason not

sought by authorities, though I been running wild for days.

They’s surely going to track me down,

I’m the number-1 menace for miles around,

with the littering, the loitering, the mattress tags,

all the pirated Mp3s I grabs

—& “Indier Than Thou”:

I’m so indie that my shirt don’t fit.

You wonder out loud, “Yo, Frontalot, why you come so ill-equipped?”…

I look confused, like I just got out of bed.

My rhyme style reflects this.

Use my overdeveloped sense of irony to deflect dis-

missiles, exploding all around me.

Unpromoted, don’t know how you found me,

soundly situated in obscurityland,

famous in inverse proportion to how cool I am…

You get the idea. They’re Star Wars–worshipping, RPG-mastering, lonely white egghead rappers. The kind who eat Indian takeout every night facing their laptops in pajama bottoms & tees that read “I’m outdoorsy in that I like to get drunk on patios.” Takeout a lot like ours the other night from India’s Pearl.

Granting that basing an assessment of a restaurant on food that has been sitting in plastic in the front seat for awhile is somewhat like assessing a potential love interest when he or she has a ripping hangover & a neck rash, my 2nd experience with this place was satisfactory indeed, only slightly less so than the 1st.

Granting, too, that looking back at the photos I can now only make a half-educated guess as to which dish was which,

IPchicken?

chicken tikka masala?

IPpaneer?

paneer makhani?

IPvindaloo

lamb vindaloo, I’m pretty sure

I can assure they were all rich & tasty; while I’ve delved into the vindaloo previously, I’ll add that the paneer balanced well its slightly salty cheese cubes with its slightly sweet (indeed sweetened, traditionally with honey I believe) tomato sauce, & that the tikka masala wasn’t rote, what with generous chunks of chicken & the gentlest kick.

The vegetarian biryani, meanwhile, was the guilty greasy pleasure that any dish whose name apparently derives from the Persian word for “fried” should be—& more than just scattered with onions, peppers, peas, nuts & raisins, contrary to the blurry image.

IPbiryani

Finally, though the shrimp-&-potato tikki were a bit worse for the lukewarm wear by the time I got hold of them, they had too much integrity to morph into flavorless lumps before my teeth. It’s as though they were leftovers to start with. & that’s no bad thing.

IPpatties

India’s Pearl: pretty cultured

Peeking in the windows of the short-lived BB’s on Pearl as it underwent renovation, I saw things. Suspicious things. Creepy things. Like someone sleeping slack-mouthed on a banquette. And a signed black-&-white photograph of some jaunty mustachioed buck in a toque. And a banner promising fine wine. Things, in short, I was inclined to associate less with the Indian eatery Platt Park sorely needed—presumably (not necessarily, of course, but more likely) humble & low-key—and more with, say, the great expectations of a once-promising young chef turned bitterly determined schizo, soon to be haunting the ruins of his failure like the Denver dining scene’s own Miss Havisham.

But now for the Dickensian twist: turns out I might be the naysaying schizo! A, the autographed glossy I swear I saw & interpreted as a sign of delusional grandeur is now, I swear equally, nowhere in obvious sight. B, the promise of fine wine I scoffed at is being fulfilled: the fact that, according to our server, the proprietors of India’s Pearl also own a chain of liquor stores shows not only in the breadth of the 7-page list—it runs the geographical and varietal gamut—but in the converse narrowness of its low-to-mid-price range.

C, as for passing out on the premises—there but for the grace of God. This is some hearty, heady stuff indeed. Like the wine list, the menu is long & laden with not only the Punjabi standards but also potential surprises like syal machchi (fish in a caramelized onion sauce), tandoori pheasant & lobster, & an apparently Pakistani intrigue called illachi beef pasanda—tandoori beef in cardamom-papaya sauce. Lassi gussies up in the form of rooh afza—milk with rose syrup—& milk badam with almonds, cardamom & saffron.

These days, many a high-end Indian restaurant prides itself on cooking everything to order rather than batch cooking. Yet depending on the circumstances, both methods have their pros as well as their cons. While it’s true that spicing can be more precise in the former, it can also have less depth than in the latter. I don’t doubt the chef at India’s Pearl—who, our server noted, was recruited from Chicago—is making his sauces in quantity. But given their quality—which we experienced via what most Americans would consider the basics, hence what I tend to treat as litmus tests—I’ve got no beef with that.

The naan we started with was plenty airy, not at all the wet rag that sometimes scrubs your gut with a bucketful of ghee, & yielded garlic galore.

IPnaan

Papri chaat proved exceptional: fresher & more carefully considered than most versions, festooned with green chickpeas, potato cubes, cilantro, sev (those fried noodles on top) & fried wheaten wafers that stayed crunchy even as they got all mixed up with not only yogurt & tamarind chutney but a strong brown curry.

IPchaat

Baigan bharta, the classic eggplant curry, often has a love apple–derived veneer of sweetness; this one was, I think, devoid of tomatoes, greener both to the eye & on the palate than any I’ve had.

IPeggplant

Apparently my camera time-traveled to a red-sauce parlor circa 1973 to capture Mamma Giuseppe’s meatballs in marinara. Where we were, this was a lamb vindaloo as dark as the eggplant was green. The kitchen kept the spicing to a dull roar, though; I suggest you fire breathers specify your desire to weep copious drops of blood.

IPlamb

Whole peppercorns & caraway seeds speckled the rice, perfectly nice.

IPrice

Finally, to return to the fine wine: we opted for a $21 Grover Vineyard cab-shiraz blend from the subcontinent itself—not the most structured jug of grape juice I’ve ever gulped from (the La Reserve, which we tried at NYC’s Chola & which is also available here, is better), but no less a pleasure to discover for discovery’s sake.

IPwine

In sum, my own expectations for the success of India’s Pearl have, with a single meal, increased considerably.