New Towson Indian Kitchen Whipping Up Winning Fare
Towson has itself a new Indian restaurant, Café Spice, right across from the library, located in the space occupied for years by Purim Oak. Patrons walk down a ramp from a vaguely disreputable entrance--it looks like porn might lie ahead--and find to their right one narrow and one wide paneled and carpeted dining room, spiffed up by small framed paintings and a remarkable fountain that juxtaposes a bronzed deity with a stone garden Bo Peep.
It's a room where diners feel comfortable, and the folks who dined there on a recent Saturday night had the carefree look of hotel guests who had wandered in from rooms down the hall. Open for just a few months, Café Spice appears to have already attracted a micro-following, who appeared particularly keen to the idea of Café Spice's quiet and casual approach to what elsewhere can feel formal or even stuffy.
A family affair, Café Spice is owned and run by Rani and Girish Garg with not very much other help. Sometimes the pace was poky, but the attention was sincere. Mrs. Garg, who waited on our table, promised to write '911' on the kitchen ticket next to an entrée requested fiery. A small detail lingers. When Mr. Garg himself brought the dinner plates to the tables, only to find that not everything was ready for dinner, he sent his loved ones running to bring plates and serving spoons in a way that betrayed at once both disappointed pride and loving patience.
Goodness in people makes itself known, and the same is true with food. The Indian food at Café Spice is full-bodied and well-rounded, and most dishes tried here have a very pleasing depth and freshness about them. The classic aloo gobi mattar ($9.99) is quite lovely. Cauliflower and potatoes remain firm in an arousing spicy tomato and onion sauce, and the curry flavors have transformed the ingredients completely, as though the dish has been simmering for hours. It had surprising heat, more so than a gingery lamb vindaloo ($13.99), the dish that had been requested very spicy but which was only moderately so, missing a little tang. Yet the lamb itself was mild and tender and the dish satisfied.
Café Spice makes a refreshing and aromatic chicken saag ($11.99), too, creamy but not heavy, with spinach gently coating strips of chicken, ginger and garlic subtly permeating the sauce. Malai kofta ($10.99), an Indian take on meatless balls, mashes together and deep-fries potatoes and peas with nuts and grated paneer and deposits them in a mild cumin-laced sauce. The balls, three of them, get a little lost in the sauce, but they're delicious, and toasty garlic nan ($2.99) or floury onion kulcha ($2.99) should be nearby for mopping-up duties
Café Spice presents diners with a bound dinner menu that is appreciably more limited than the paper takeout menus available near the entrance. Everything from the larger menu is available to in-house diners, Mr. Garg said--entrées like tandoori crab tikka, char-grllled lamb chops, cashew masala, and achaari khumb, a tantalizing dish with pickled vegetables and mushrooms; a Sundays-only flame-grilled biryani; options of goat, fish, and shrimp in all of the classic regional sauces. In retrospect, it was almost a relief not to have more choices to wade through on a first visit--the limited menu might be a deliberate strategy for a small-staffed kitchen.
The best thing tasted here was the appetizer gobi manchuri ($4.99), batter-fried cauliflower in a truly tongue-singing garlic sauce that, as its name suggests, is influenced by Chinese cuisine. If Café Spice did become that restaurant for you, the place you go because the family here is so nice and the food gets better as you bore your way deeper into the menu, the crispy hot gobi manchuri would be the thing you order every time no matter what.
Café Spice is serving a $7.99 lunch buffet on weekdays from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and a more elaborate version on weekends for $11.99. The neighborhood is full of workers looking for good, wholesome lunch choices, and Café Spice is primed to jump right to the head of their lists. It's not yet, as mentioned above, a seamless operation. Could be, though, that what felt like a slow kitchen was simply one preparing food to order.