Pickups on South Charles Street
Revisiting The Comforts Of Two Federal Hill Eateries
Federal Hill is the city’s best neighborhood for both quality and diversity of restaurants. Anchored by the recently renovated Cross Street Market, a little bit of everything is walkable to everything else, and much of what’s here is good, from top-of-the-game places such as Corks and Vespa to such reliable neighborly mainstays as Maria D’s and SoBo Café.
I recently revisited, after many years’ absence, Federal Hill’s long-running representatives of Indian and Szechuan cuisines, respectively, Banjara (1017 S. Charles St.,  962-1554) and the prosaically named Szechuan Restaurant (1125 S. Charles St.,  752-8409). Of the two, Banjara comes closer to providing something that might encourage a crosstown journey. Both of them quietly, almost invisibly, serve the neighborhood well. You could do much worse.
Banjara’s once elegant storefront ambiance has grown pleasingly tatty over the years, like an old sports jacket with leather patches. The room has a brooding, cushioning ambiance that feels just right for a midweek winter meal. The service comes across as amiable but perfunctory, but for some reason getting the check proved a minor ordeal for our table, with only one other diner there on a quiet Sunday evening.
Drizzled in among the standard fare on Banjara’s admirable coherent menu of lamb, chicken, seafood, and vegetarian dishes are a few unusual and tempting offerings: crab malabar ($16.95); lobster saag wala ($18.95), prepared with spinach, green chiles, ginger, and garlic; and lamb mango ($13.95). To keep regular patrons further engaged, Banjara runs a short list of specials, which included, at this visit, lamb chops ($20.95), marinated jumbo shrimp ($20.95), Cornish hen ($18.95), lamb marinated in mint, coriander, and yogurt ($18.95), and a dish named murgh kumari ($17.95), a chicken breast coated with lentils and served with a creamy apricot-ginger sauce.
We ordered the murgh kumari. Lentils were a sparse, almost negligible presence, overwhelmed by a sauce that was too nuanced in its execution—most palates would have wanted a bit more ginger bite, a tad more apricot pluck. The chicken breast itself was tender, not quite succulent; the sauce may have worked better with cubes or slices of more flavorful dark-meat chicken.
Most of Banjara’s sauces are as estimably subtle. I kept looking for more pronounced and distinct flavors in them. I had trouble understanding the play of tropical fruit, ginger, and garlic with the lamb mango. These are close calls, really, and my palate is not yours.
Banjara’s alu gobi ($9.95), the ever-present offering of spicy potatoes and fresh cauliflower, looks more appealing than it does elsewhere. Cubes of tomatoes and generous sprinklings of fresh green herbs livened up the dish, and the vegetables were firm and fresh tasting—but, again, the seasoning was just south of full arousal.
Banjara’s highly recommended tandoori grand platter ($17.95) is a wowser, a sizzling platter of marinated and spiced chicken and lamb, served in parts, cubes, and formed rolls of minced meat. Of the workaday selection of fried street-vendor appetizers—samosas and pakoras—that come on Banjara’s vegetarian platter ($8.95), forks fought most for the onion bhajia, glisteningly oily cakes of thinly sliced onions deep-fried in spicy chickpea batter.
If Banjara is a ultimately a bit dull, Szechuan Restaurant is simply complacent, dishing out the same immemorial dishes that it, along with countless other Szechuan restaurants, have since the cuisine first infiltrated our lives. We talked about this over dinner and decided that the need for this food hits us only sporadically these days—there’s simply more engaging pleasures elsewhere—but when it does hit places like Szechuan are reassuring and necessary.
I love the red-leather booth cocktail lounge look of this place, the pink-patterned wallpaper, the cheap chopsticks, and the paper place mats. I like, too, the bulletin board full of customer snapshots. With the exception of a grisly cold noodle appetizer, which was smeared with a gelatinous brown sauce, not one bite of which helped me remember what it was about this food that once so satisfied me. The best dish we ordered, called Paul’s Choice ($7.95), in a customer’s honor, was a simple stir-fry of sliced chicken with snow peas, broccoli, and mushrooms in a peppery sauce. The prices here have remained low—and when the mood for this comfort food hits you, so should your expectations.