By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
The first time I tried Star of India -- two years ago, during one of my warm-weather Indian binges -- I immediately put the meal out of my mind. The food wasn't just spicy, it was punishing. Brutal. The heat was so overwhelming that it fried the synapses in my brain, fusing all connections into a simple danger equation: Star of India=Hot. Too hot. Licking-a-glowing-element hot. Definitely too hot for me to handle. I boxed the memory and buried it, like long-lost radioactive waste.
While I have perfect recall of some things (the seven pastas on my sauté station at a restaurant where I worked ten years ago; all the words to the song "Mexican Radio," by Wall of Voodoo; exactly what I was wearing the night I met Laura, my wife, for the first time, and what she was wearing, and what the night was like, and what her voice sounded like, she having not yet lost the last traces of her Philly-girl accent), I've been known to misplace whole other swaths of memory, making it impossible, for example, to provide the specific details of how I ended up in New Mexico one New Year's Day watching a friend of mine eat glass on a dare. I remember being in a bar in Buffalo (the start of many of my favorite restaurant stories). I remember bracing myself for the drive back to Rochester with a couple rails of Bolivian marching powder. And then I remember the Midwest. Apparently I'd taken a wrong turn onto the interstate and thought it wise to just keep going.
And it's lucky for some restaurants that I have this tendency to mislay the mental index cards on which I've recorded unpleasant meals of my past, but lucky for me, I have Laura, who -- like an elephant or Nina Zagat -- has never forgotten one bite of food that's ever crossed her lips. Or mine. So when I announced a couple of weeks ago that the weather had grown too unseasonably sweltering for us to eat anything but Indian food, she said that was wonderful, as long as I didn't plan on returning to Star of India.
Lamb samosa: $4.50
Chicken pakora: $4.95
Vegetable biryani: $10.95
Tandoori mixed grill: $16.95< br>Chicken tikka masala: $11.95
Saag paneer: $9.95
Chicken korma: $10.95
There then followed an argument of the sort that's become increasingly frequent in the Sheehan household. I asked her "Why not Star of India?" She said because I'd been there already and didn't like it. I said she was mad -- that I'd never been there in my life. She suggested (demanded, really) that I make an appointment with a neurologist to try and figure out exactly what was wrong with me that I couldn't remember something as simple as having eaten at a restaurant where the food was so hot I'd cried like a six-year-old girl. I suggested she go see a shrink to try and figure out what was wrong with her that she would maliciously insinuate that I'd been to a restaurant that I'd never been to just to fuck with me. She said she was insinuating nothing and that I was just retarded.
Things degenerated from there.
And even though she was correct (an archaeological excavation of my dining notes decided the issue in her favor), we went to Star of India anyway. There was really never any question of where we'd wind up. The argument hadn't truly been about dinner, but marital turf -- about who was right and who was wrong and other coup-counting nonsense that makes the vicious, fight-to-the-death struggle that is marriage such a happy institution. And one of the benefits of the sinkholes in my memory is that I can return to restaurants over and over, each time being like the first time when I never know what I'm going to find. I'm like a goldfish that forgets one side of its bowl when it's on the other and is always surprised by the little castle in the middle.
Still, how could I have forgotten a place that tints a strip-mall parking lot with the smoky scent of its tandoor ovens? When the front doors are open and the wind is just right, you can smell Star of India from Parker Road -- an acre away. And inside, it's like being wrapped in a blanket of spice. You settle into one of the booths along the wall -- upholstered in the regal color of a young burgundy and set with embroidered pillows for your back -- and simply lose yourself in a world of foreign perfumes.
As I sat down, I suddenly found my memories of Star of India -- and of my poor, abused palate. I distinctly recalled how, after eating just a taste of the vegetables and napalm spécialité de la maison, I'd sat there, eyes tearing, thinking to myself that I must've done something cruel to the chef in a past life for him to want to hurt me this way, and hoping I wasn't going to have to explain myself to the server when I asked for a to-go box after one or two bites.
This time though (and with a little prodding from Laura), I was more careful. It took just one more pitiless Goan vindaloo with potatoes -- which made me wonder how the British survived their colonial adventures without simply exploding -- to discover the secret to ordering at Star of India: Ask for what you want. Exactly what you want. Be firm. Repeat yourself. Make abundantly clear precisely the level of spice you want, and don't back down. It may help to invent some sort of story for the waiter -- like saying that you're a gigantic baby and can't take anything hotter than tepid oatmeal, or that you just underwent tongue surgery and anything too hot will cause the top of your head to fall right off into the soup.