Passage to India
An unassuming location offers culinary delights
If there was a formula for finding good Asian food in Baltimore, it could go like this. Drive out to the western suburbs. Find a strip mall or shopping center on a busy road. Look for a restaurant with a sign lit in neon and a pokey interior. Once you have discovered this, there's a good chance you'll encounter some pretty excellent food.
Shaheen, which offers Indian and Pakistani cuisine, certainly makes this formula seem accurate.
Located in an ugly concrete building next to the Macy's in Security Square Mall, Shaheen will win no prizes for aesthetics. The dining space is large and mostly bare, with tables separated from a hot buffet and cold dessert case by a low wall strung with rainbow-colored chiffon. The one bit of decoration comes from the ornate golden divan set up on a platform near the front of the restaurant, which is often used for Iftaar parties (when the fast is broken at Ramadan), henna ceremonies known as mehndi, and weddings and baby showers.
But what the restaurant lacks in appearance it more than makes up for in service and, most importantly, food. Female patrons are invariably addressed as "ma'am," whether they're 30 or 60, and the staff is gently solicitous throughout the meal. "The quail will take approximately 45 minutes. Is that alright?" "Would you like spicy, medium, or mild?" "How is everything?" "May I bring you more rice?" The questions, though plentiful, are well-intentioned and non-invasive. They do not break the flow of the dinner conversation; they simply add to the civility of the evening.
As one might expect from a restaurant that serves the Muslim community (among others), all meat served in the restaurant is halal. And while Shaheen offers a few dishes-- goat korma, quail tandoori--not seen on many Indian restaurant menus, most dishes are familiar. There are curries and all manner of fish, fowl, and meat cooked tandoori style. There are plentiful vegetarian dishes, featuring saag, dal, bhindi, and the firm, creamy paneer.
Entrées at Shaheen are substantial, but don't pass on the appetizers, which show more variety than most places and are sized to share. Over the years, I've probably eaten my weight in samosas, but I'd never had samosa chaat ($5.99), a fiery amalgam of conventional samosas smothered in chickpea curry, yogurt, and onions. It's a bit of a mess--the samosas lose their crispness to the sauce and all the ingredients end up melding together--but it's a glorious mess. Dahi vada chaat (fried lentil balls, $5.99) are a bit of a letdown afterwards. Pale in color, they are slightly reminiscent of firm matzo balls, but instead of chicken soup, they bob in a gorgeous raita brimming with raw onions and some chopped tomato. The sauce is wonderful; the lentil balls, negligible. Shaheen's reliable version of vegetable pakora ($5.99) is a guilty pleasure of battered cauliflower and potato, and the restaurant's tamarind chutney adds a bit of sweetness, as well as a sneaky spice component.
Although we requested our food to be medium spiced, overall, the appetizers proved spicier than any entrée, though this was perhaps due more to our selection than to the kitchen's definition of heat levels. One doesn't expect quail tandoori ($9.95 for two birds) to burn, though one is pleasantly surprised to find it not fluorescent red. Instead, it is moist, brown, and a little salty, though, remarkably, not overcooked, considering the bird's tininess.
Saag paneer ($7.95) is classically mild and creamy, though Shaheen's version minces the paneer rather than cubing it--a potential disappointment for some. But Shaheen's version of the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala ($9.95) reminds that mild doesn't have to equal bland. The sauce is a little lighter, a little more lemony, and boasts a mild heat that gives it more character, elevating it above the usual brilliant tomato cream sauce. Similarly, a "dry" (rather than sauced) aloo gobi (cauliflower) ($6.95) is jazzy with ginger and onion.
Shaheen serves goat in several preparations. While our group of diners (several of whom were not goat novices) liked the ruddy sauce of the goat korma ($7.95), the meat was more of a challenge for its texture--tough, chewy, and with the occasional bit of gristle--rather than its flavor. It will not convert the fainthearted. The tawa keema ($8.95), however, is a homey way to enjoy loose ground beef, sort of a sloppy joe for the sub-continent, seasoned with ginger and onions and laced with fresh coriander.
Visiting Shaheen's dessert case at the end of the meal is a little like stepping into Willy Wonka's candy factory: The array dazzles with color, little is familiar, and what is is tweaked to be more rich and more outrageously bright or sweet. Gulab jamun--sweet balls that look like donut holes--(all desserts $6 a pound) for instance, comes as usual, in cardamom-spiked sugar syrup or stuffed with a custard made from sweetened condensed milk, a true (and delicious) embarrassment of riches. Barfi, a fudge-like treat made of condensed milk, is pink or green with coconut or pistachios. And the rice-pudding-esque halwa is a burst of sweet orange carrot. Truth be told, all of the sweets can run together on a palate unused to such excess, but there's something undeniably fun about eating something so brilliantly green that isn't necessarily good for you.
Shaheen does the small things well, from beautifully fresh naan to serving the entrées in simple white dishes that interlock and curve almost conjugally. The restaurant also offers an ample buffet for $6.95 a pound (on weekends, oddly, there is often Chinese food there too). While that may be a way to fill your belly for a modest amount, I'd advise slowing down, choosing carefully, and reveling in the nuance of what comes to the table.