Wednesday, February 6, 2008

REVIEW: India- **** / $$

I have withheld a review of India for some time. I was afraid that since India was my first experience with Indian food oh-so-many years ago that I would think them better than they actually were. Well, after all this time, and a number of other Indian experiences, India remains the best Indian food in Rhode Island.

India has two locations, one in Providence down the street from competing Rasoi, and one in Warren. They are both gorgeously appointed. They are some of the most nicely designed restaurants in Rhode Island. Much better than many high-end places, like the decorative abortion at L'Epicureo. Small lights twinkle. Candles glow. Golds, browns, and dark woods hide in shadow as warm light illuminates the room. There are countless details that are modern yet very Indian, including the paintings, pictures, and furniture. Both India's are very relaxing, romantic environs that make perfect battlegrounds for a raid on someone else's innocence. Wink wink, nudge nudge, knowwhatImean knowwhatImean?

India really seemed to be on its way to complete dominance of the local Indian scene with the opening of a third location in East Greenwich some years ago. The East Greenwich location closed recently, only to have its place taken by a second location for the well-known Siena, but I digress. I can't describe how sad I was to see it go. The only other Indian restaurant near me, The Indian Club, also closed its doors around the same time, to be replaced by the new Black & Blue. So the closing of both places seems to indicate no interest in Indian food in the area, instead of bad business decisions on the parts of the owners. There seems to be no limit to the steakhouse market, though, with the local, beef-swilling gourmands willing to eat as much steak as can be shipped in. I'm now left with no Indian food to excite my palate! I don't have time to make my own damned curry. All the good places are in Providence and the surrounding areas, a solid 30-minute-plus drive for me. I could go to the Indian Grille, in Newport, but who the hell wants to do that? Newport's full of meth addicts, yuppies, and brain-eating zombies.

Again, I digress. Service is good. The wait staff is usually friendly and food comes out quickly. You get some special attention if it's a slow night and the owners are around. There can be a wait on Friday and Saturday, but it's usually pretty short. Both locations are large and the staff is skilled at moving people in and out, thus freeing up tables for hungry patrons.

On weekend nights they frequently have events to draw people in. These run the gamut from live music, belly dancers, to Indian movies projected on a large screen in the center of the dining area. It could be worse. It could be chop-socky melodramas from China. It's things like this that make the restaurants really sparkle. Events, food, lighting, and drinks. They do a very good job of making India a weekend destination. It's not quite up to the level of having the band Cornershop do a concert, but it's enough where you may think twice about going elsewhere.

The menu has grown as the years have gone by and is now competitive with the large menus at the other Indian restaurants in the area. Among those additions are new desserts, thankfully, because Gulab Jamun just scares me. Most of the offerings are not terribly original nor terribly traditional. They're somewhat standard American-Indian (not the casino-owning kind) fare. You have your curries, your breads, and your biryani. But no longer is the curry list the center of the menu. The list of house specialties is where most of the growth has taken place. Having not assimilated disparate ingredients, you get what you expect, but it's perfectly executed. Nothing is amazingly inventive, but India doesn't go the traditional route, either. Instead, they massage their recipes to be lighter, more healthy, and a bit more Mediterranean-hybrid than true Indian. It all works very well. They're also a lot spicier than other restaurants, and you can get it spicier still upon request.

They have my favorite curry around. Vindaloo, mango, and masala are all wonderfully spiced. The vindaloo is a real favorite, being not so hot as to overwhelm the flavor, but hot enough to get your tongue burning. Very, very well-balanced. The biryani is also the best I've had. The quality of their ingredients and the skillful balance of the flavors in the meal really set their biryani apart from the competition.

India is apparently very careful in their choices of ingredients. They advertise using locally grown vegetables and cheeses and tout their health-conscious attitudes. Whether it's locally grown or not doesn't matter much to me, much less whether it's good for me or not. It's thought out well, and the quality is apparent. The recipes are also generally light, which is nice. Much of the lightness to the curry and biryani can be credited to the excellent basmati rice. Very fluffy, flavorful, and well-paired with the meats they select.

I said in my Rasoi interview that I had never encountered tough meats or gristle. That had been true until recently. I had had two experiences where I had gristle in my chicken that forced me to stop chewing and extricate it from my maw. It sounds like I'm nit-picking, sure, but there's a big difference between flawless and not flawless. Still, I can find very little about which to complain. The serving sizes are large, but the recipes leave you satisfied without being bloated. This may be their vegetarian ambitions coming out in the food.

I've waited to talk about the naan because of the naan war between India and the nearby Rasoi. As I mentioned in my Rasoi review, they have the best naan around. It's a really amazing recipe with a selection of scrumptious toppings and stuffings. India keeps its naan a bit simpler, presenting it more as bread than as a substantial aspect of the meal. India's naan is chewier, while Rasoi is lighter. India also charges less for their naan, which I guess is appropriate. India doesn't fall completely to the naan juggernaut of Rasoi, though, having my favorite naan. Their vindaloo naan is excellent, and Rasoi doesn't have any spicy breads with which to respond. So, there is space for both India and Rasoi in the local naan market.

Their drink list is as inventive and colorful as you would expect. Combined with a good selection of beers and affordable wines, India has the whistle-wetting aspect pretty well-covered, but they could do more with the bar. Their mixed drinks selection is limited and the variety of liquors and liqueurs is pretty lean. Perhaps hire on a dedicated bar tender. I think this would be a good idea from a business standpoint. Bars draw in the locals in a way that no restaurant can. Expand the bar, expand the offerings, and generate more money all around.

So, again, after all this time India is still where I go for my Indian food. After some really great experiences at places like Rasoi, Kabob & Curry, and Indian Grille, India just sticks in my mind as the place I always desire. It may be more American/hybrid than true Indian, but who cares when it tastes this good. The service, atmosphere, and food really coalesce into something special. India is a personal favorite, a bargain of Rhode Island dining, and a place that you should certainly go out of your way to try.

India: ****
Price range for two: $25-$50 (The website is tragically out-of-date. The menu is much larger now)

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1060 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906

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520 Main Street
Warren, RI. 02885

Monday through Thursday 11:30am to 9:00pm
Friday & Saturday 11:30am to 10:00pm

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