We stepped outside, Laura and I, our arms loaded down with takeout boxes, protected by an invisible force field of fennel, anise, clove and curry smells that pushed back the gray ugliness of another suburban parking lot in another suburban strip mall. Before us were too many SUVs, greasy puddles full of rainwater, the peeling wall of a Benihana -- but all that seemed distant, incapable of intruding on our tiny world of spice and magic. We stepped off the sidewalk and onto the asphalt, Laura's arm brushing mine, and noticed that the woman from the flower shop was standing out front, talking on her cell phone, eyes fixed on the sky. Two men from the cigar store at the end of the mall stood silently by that door, hands in pockets, looking up. A couple outside the pharmacy next to India's was doing the same -- him pointing, her head on his shoulder. So we looked up out of our private world and saw the rainbow, too. It was a big one, full end to end, and brilliantly colored like a rope of hard candy against the retreating gray of the clouds.
Laura snaked her free hand through my arm and said, "I guess you've got your ending now."
The story began with lunch at India's, where I'd gone because it's August, and August is tough. Of the twelve months we've got, August is the bitch of the bunch. And while August is hard on everyone, it's hardest on restaurant folk. People freak out this time of year. Business dries up. Busboys vanish. Line cooks snap. Every chef I'd been talking to seemed locked in survival mode, concerned only with seeing out the season. August is bunker-mentality time: You try to go easy, ride it out, live through it. And I may still have some of that in me, some kind of line-cook Seasonal Affective Disorder held over from my former life, because August makes me real uptight, makes me want to do nothing but sit on my couch watching cartoons with a bag of frozen Niblets down my pants. I don't wanna eat, I don't wanna cook, and the thought of sitting through a bad restaurant meal is enough to make me want to go all Zelda Fitzgerald: drink a nice warm bottle of gin, maybe light something on fire.
So instead I went to India's -- a restaurant I'd heard very good things about but hadn't yet gotten around to visiting. Over the past fifteen years, this almost claustrophobically cluttered Indian spot tucked into the left flank of Tamarac Square has gained a very loyal following with its Mughlai Indian cuisine, a gentler and beautifully complex culinary counterpart to the wholesome simplicity of Haryanvi and the richness of Bengali seafood. Whether you're after an adventure, an education, just lunch or a little of all three, the best way to begin at India's is with the lunch buffet. I piled bright tin plates with a little of everything offered, adding bright tin cups filled with dal (lentil soup), raita (a yogurt sauce) and tamarind chutney, then headed back to my table. I had a plate in each hand, and as I set them down, I realized how much more I liked these dishes than any ubiquitious, workaday, bone-white china. I liked them for how they looked on a crowded table, gleaming against the scratchy maroon-and-cream cloths, acting as frames for all the colorful food. I liked how they carried all the dents and gouges of their history, the record of their long service. They were so much more expressive, so much more honest, than china that chips, cracks and is thrown away.
With these plates in front of me, the room suddenly smelled like Christmas in Calcutta -- like clove and cinnamon and winter spices overlaid with a fine gauze of warm curry and the hot breath of tandoor ovens. Each smell reminded me that Indian is a cuisine made for heat, for a spot where the mercury can top out at truly brutal heights. It's food that's all about balance, about evening-out extremes. There's yogurt to cool every curry, cream to smooth every sauce, and flavors that build in layers. This is food that alters time, stretching it and bending it around long, luxurious pauses; food that benefits the deliberate, contemplative eater with each new spice, each independent taste, growing naturally and slowly out of the one before it like a seed growing into a stalk, stretching out leaves and blooming into a flower.
I took a corner of warm naan -- the bread soft and blistered on one side, crisp and laced with burnt ghee (clarified butter) on the other -- and dug it into a pile of cold chickpeas dressed in vinegar and lemon juice, then dipped it into a small bowl of cool raita. After that, I demolished a pile of wonderful aloo chaat, a yellowish mishmash of chilled potatoes, spices and lemon juice. Then it was on to green beans and potatoes cooked almost like a casserole, onion bhaji (batter-fried fritters of onion and fennel), and chicken in a sweet yellow curry so delicate it was almost like eating the mere smell of curry, a memory suspended in cream and butter. Finally, there was a saag paneer -- creamed spinach bathed in earthy, mellow spices and studded with soft cubes of homemade cheese -- that was milder and more even-tempered than saag I've had elsewhere, but just as smooth and filling.
From my narrow table, now arrayed with dirty tin and stained linen, I catalogued the details of the room -- a space that looks like the aftermath of an explosion at a duty-free shop, decorated as if the owners were determined to shoehorn a thousand years' worth of proud culture onto the walls. I watched how the bright parachutes of rainbow-colored cloth hanging from the ceiling fluttered like Buddhist prayer flags every time the front door opened; saw how the double-sided brass ashtray holders on every table had been converted into racks for holding bottles of mint and tamarind chutney. I noticed how the low band of mirrors running around the periphery of the dining room reflected no faces but captured dozens of hands with fingers pinching bread, fingers cradling forks, dipping things I didn't know the names of into bowls of other things I didn't know the names of.
Like boti masala, which I'd never so much as heard of until I returned to India's for dinner a few nights later with Laura. I'm still having trouble describing this fantastic dish. But I can say that it came with a side of the best rice I've ever had: long-grained and dry, steamed with fennel, clove and raisins. The dish itself comprised perfectly tender little chunks of lamb -- a half-bite each, slow-cooked in the clay tandoor (the hallmark of Mughlai cooking and the instrument that's the best indicator of this particular cuisine) and left juicy with just a bare, dark shade of gamy tang -- swimming in a shallow tin bowl full of smoky, earthy tomato cream sauce touched with a dozen subtle, grounded spices.
I can say that it was wonderful.
What really matters, though, is what it did to me. The very first taste crushed me. My eyes drifted closed. I didn't chew, couldn't breathe. I folded forward like I was bowing, like I'd been punched in the chest. It was shock that did it, the kind of reflex that seizes you when your vision is filled with great art or your heart by pure love. It was instant joy at finding something so new, so unbelievably good. It was overwhelming.
There were generations of experience in that one taste, in the balance of texture and spice, in the depths that had been coaxed from one simple sauce. This was not a taste created by accident. Culinary-school grads -- the kind of cooks always attempting to take their two years' experience behind the stoves and "modernize" classic dishes it took hundreds of years to perfect -- should be marched to India's right at graduation and made to sample this dish before they receive their funny white hats and diplomas. It would teach them the humility that they'd otherwise failed to pick up, show them the result of long practice, secret recipes and knowledge passed down from cook to cook to cook; of how, with each passing set of hands, a sauce can get a little better, can get a little deeper, can grow a little more soul.
I had a second bite, a third, then stopped. We had so much more to eat, so much more to try.
We picked our way around a table crowded with food. There were crisp samosa -- peas and spiced potatoes, sharp with fennel and pepper, wrapped in a deep-fried pastry shell. Papri-pakauri was like Indian nachos with chickpeas, cubes of potato and slices of raw, red tomato set on starchy wafers and covered with raita, then looped with sweet and sour, red and green chutneys. We ate ground-lamb sheekh kabab (another Mughlai original -- you gotta love these guys) and breasts of chicken dyed brick red by spices and tradition, then watched the cooks pulling fresh orders of them out of the smoking tandoor on long metal skewers.
There was navarattan korma, a vegetarian dish of carrots, potatoes, peas, cauliflower, almonds, cashews and pistachios in a mellow cream sauce rich with bitter lime, cumin, cardamom and clove. And then chicken shahi korma done the same way, only with raisins and tender pieces of stewed chicken instead of vegetables.
Laura and I passed plates back and forth, traded bites of this and tastes of that. It seemed the table held twice as much food as we'd ordered, and we didn't know what to call half of it, but we ate it all anyway. That's one of the joys of Indian food: Sometimes you get a little extra without even asking, and most of the time, you feel like it's more than you deserve.
There was another lamb dish, this one with the meat in a simple, thick brown gravy with a hint of curry that was probably rogan josh (of Kashmiri origin, but right at home here), and was better and more powerful than most demi-glaces. We had aloo paratha -- flat wheat bread stuffed with spiced potatoes -- in which to fold up a little bit of everything, and a butter-smooth spiced dal for cleansing the palate. And between all this, I had my boti masala to sneak back to, secretly wanting to pour the stuff into my pocket and take it home so that I could dole it out one or two bites at a time, like medicine.
Then dinner was over. We had our waiter -- who'd been smiling and attentive and very tolerant of our attempts to dip one of everything on the table into one of everything else -- box up the mingled leftovers, paid the bill and walked out. We were happy. More important, we were full. It was more than just bellies stuffed with korma and naan, more than just food. Our noses were full of the sexy, waxy smell of candles burning low, the blanket of curry, cumin, fennel and anise in the air. Our hearts were full of the surprise and joy of finding a great meal.
Then we went out in the parking lot and saw the rainbow. A good meal should have been enough. Finding anything as delicious as boti masala in the dog days of August would have been a gift. But the rainbow?
Sometimes you get a little extra without even asking. Sometimes you just get lucky.
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