The Carlyle Club swaps its Lebanese menu for Indian-inspired dishes
Some locations seem destined always to be a certain type of restaurant, be it tavern or take-out joint. For the last 15 years or so, the restaurant in the Carlyle apartment building has been a home for ethnic cooking, including Chinese and Lebanese. Its latest incarnation, the Carlyle Club (500 W. University Parkway,  243-5454), which shares the same name and ownership as the previous Lebanese endeavor, calls its new menu "coastal Indian." While this doesn't necessarily translate into a seafood-heavy menu, it does distinguish itself from the menu of the neighboring Ambassador Dining Room (which shares the same owner) with the inclusion of dosas (rice and lentil crepes) and a slightly different offering of vegetarian, meat, and seafood entrees.
And yet the new Carlyle Club feels more Indian-inflected rather than full-bore Asian. You can order crab cakes and strip steak here, as well as lamb chops with mint chutney and lamb shank. Tuna comes rubbed with pink salt and Kerala peppercorn and served with mashed potatoes instead of rice, and lamb bihari boasts dried cranberries and farmer's cheese as well as eggplant and tomatoes. And while you can still order vegetable korma or chana saag (homemade cheese with chickpeas and creamed spinach), the overall effect is more Americanization than, say, fusion.
One wonders if this menu was tweaked to accommodate a wider range of tastes, particularly those of the building's residents, several of whom were greeted warmly the night we dined. While it's repetitive verging on boring to reference the economy continually, if this is what restaurant management feels it must do to survive (and not duplicate its sister restaurant), so be it. Still, I think diners who are less convinced they like Indian food will enjoy their meal more than those expecting dishes they'd find at other Indian restaurants around town.
That said, some dishes at the Carlyle Club are excellent and thoroughly Indian. If the onion pakora ($7.50) is on the specials list, by all means order it. The fritters are larger than others around town and boast just the right batter-to-onion ratio. And while it was odd at first to see chunks of avocado along with brilliant green coriander sauce on the same plate as the pakora, the avocado's creaminess was a nice foil to the crisp onion fritter.
Equally pleasing was alu tikki ($5), mashed potato cakes dotted with peas and onion; the accompanying tamarind sauce was piquant enough to make your eyebrows wiggle uncontrollably, a good thing if you like tart. The heat in vada sambar ($6), a lentil soup with puffy, doughnut-like dumplings, will sneak up on you, but then leave you with that one note of heat instead of more nuance.
A lack of complexity dogged many of the entrées as well. A roasted duck breast ($16) on the specials list was overcooked, though not dry, and the pomegranate sauce with it merely sweet. Similarly, malabari halibut ($20), a fillet wrapped in a dosa served with mild coconut and tomato sauces, was simply bland, the dosa adding nothing but tasteless crunch. Chicken khurmani ($17) fared a little better with a smattering of sweet apricots and almonds in the creamy yogurt sauce offering balance to some cayenne heat. It reminded me of similar dish made with lamb that Carlyle Club used to offer when the restaurant was Lebanese. Surprisingly, it was the lamb bihari ($18), chunks of well-done lamb with the unorthodox cranberries and farmer's cheese coupled with eggplant, tomatoes and mushrooms that proved to be the hit of the evening. The flavors were clear, well balanced, and focused, something lacking from the other dishes. String beans and a small mound of rice accompanied each dish.
Like the entrées at the Ambassador, the Carlyle Club's entrées are served already plated, rather than from small dishes. This service inevitably prompts the discussion of whether the portions are generous enough to merit the price tag, or perhaps more accurately, if diners are receiving the same amount of food on their plate as they would from a serving dish. Probably not, and with these prices, slightly more generous portions would be appreciated.
The Carlyle Club closed briefly at the beginning of the year for renovations, and boosted by a fresh coat of paint and some pretty, Indian-themed murals, the dining room still retains its warm elegance. There are still a series of small booths and individual tables and the patio is just as inviting on a warm summer evening as a place to nibble pakora, sip a Taj Mahal, and watch North Baltimore stroll by.