A Fine Curry Stop Amid the Pasta Shops
For a long time, C.C.'s boys considered the apogee of fine dining to be McDonald's. Now in college, Shane and his younger brother, Arshan, are finally opening up to experiences of the culinary kind. Would they agree to join us on an expedition to Little Italy's India Rasoi (411 S. High St.,  385-4900)? They would. If nothing else, we figured, the boys love rice.
A Saturday lunch seemed an appropriate introduction, what with the $6.95 buffet featuring a broad and tasty range of 13 items. The boys and I opted for the smorgasbord; C.C. and Arshan's steady, Jen, ordered off the menu, selecting shrimp biryani ($13.75) and orange chicken ($10.75), respectively.
We kicked things off with a shared appetizer combo platter ($6.95), supplemented with a vegetable samosa ($1.75). The platter's chicken pakora, chunks of battered and fried breast meat, were a hit all around. (Must have been the McNuggets connection.) The kids and C.C. also liked the sampler's meat samosa, but I preferred the spicy potato-and-pea filling of the veggie version. The leeko, ground chicken patties, were bland, and the fish pakora was a bit underdone.
The buffet was a mixed success for Arshan, who confined himself to numerous helpings of tender tandoori chicken and nutty basmati rice. Shane, two years older and that much more worldly, tried everything and cleaned his plate, wiping perspiration from his brow as he plowed through the spicier items.
I tried everything once, then went back for my faves: a rich palak paneer (cubes of homemade cheese in creamed spinach), bengan ki sabzi (stir-fried eggplant and potatoes), chana masala (a curry of chick peas flavored with cumin, coriander, onion, and turmeric), and dal tarka (yellow lentils cooked in ginger and garlic-flavored butter). Best of all, I availed myself of a limitless supply of mango chutney and the flatbread naan.
Jen's orange chicken mixed boneless breast meat with cashew nuts in a sweet-and-sour sauce that underscored, not overpowered, the flavor of fresh oranges. C.C. was beguiled by her own sweet selection, a biryani packed with good-sized shrimp, saffron-flavored rice, raisins, and almonds.
A few weeks later C.C. and I returned on our own for a quiet feast. We began with a bowl of mulligatawny soup ($2) and an order of bhara kulcha ($2.25), white flatbread stuffed with a choice of cheese, potatoes, or onions. We chose the cheese, and it was heavenly, crisp on the outside with just a bit of ooze as we bit in. A great foil for the soup, which was piping hot and a tad spicy, with bits of coriander and smooth, earthy texture.
For the main meal we shared three entrées, bindi pyaaz ($8.50), navrattan curry ($8.50), and the India Rasoi Dinner ($12.75), the meat eater's choice of combo dinners. (A vegetarian combo, the Vegetable Thaali, is available for $11.75.) The combo contained a few items we had tried before--the mild but meaty samosa, a flavorful leg and thigh of tandoori chicken, the rice, and the naan. New to our taste buds were a hearty rogan josh, lamb cubes stewed in a brown gravy with tomatoes, and a bit of vegetable jalfrezi, a stew of cauliflower, peas, potatoes, etc., with onions and tomatoes providing the dominant tastes.
No one has to nag me to finish my vegetables at an Indian restaurant. The navrattan curry, a mild selection, mixed cubes of homemade cheese with veggies (mostly cauliflower) and slivered almonds in an orange-colored, curry-scented sauce. Better yet was the unusual bindi pyaaz, a spicy dry fry of okra and onions, fragrant with coriander. I liked it fine the way it came, though our server suggested moistening it with a spoonful of raita, a yogurt-based blend of tomatoes, cucumbers, and seasoning that came with the combo.
Indian desserts may be an acquired taste--and here I am thinking particularly of the unfortunately named barfi, a kind of inhumanly sweet, almond-flavored fudge--but I have acquired it. For those who think rose water is a component of perfume, not sweets, Indian desserts will provide a nice little shiver of culture shock. We settled on kulfi ($2.50), the traditional frozen treat made by cooking milk for four hours to thicken it, adding ground pistachios and rose water, then freezing to something resembling the consistency of ice cream. The taste is subtle, the texture much creamier than the Western version.
Service, provided by the owners, is sumptuous, even if the space is not. Give them credit for operating a fine Indian restaurant in Little Italy. We overheard a fellow at a nearby table say to his companion, "Just think--we're surrounded by Italian restaurants, and here we are, eating Indian." You could have done worse, I thought, as I let the last of the kulfi melt on my tongue.
Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.