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In Like a Lamb

Lamb dishes and savvy spicing highlight the authentic food offered at India's Rang Mahal.
Q Crutchfield

Americans will eat cheese that's been pasteurized, emulsified and homogenized so much that it can be sprayed through a nozzle. We'll ingest worm-shaped snacks made from nothing but sugar, water and enough preservatives to embalm a hippo, and happily munch on deep-fried pieces of skin that once covered a farm animal. At a carnival, we'll pay top dollar for the privilege of consuming a log of fatty animal by-products encased in a wad of cornmeal dough and jammed onto a stick, and we have no qualms about running gallons of caffeinated, carbonated, high fructose corn syrup past the soft mucous membranes of our digestive systems.

But set a plate of goat meat down in front of the average diner in this country, and expect to be greeted by a grimace -- maybe even a gag reflex.

Although goat meat is an integral part of the cuisine of India, something definitely got lost in the translation when restaurateurs in the U.S. tried to duplicate the unique flavors of Indian cooking. Lamb curries, vindaloos and koftas are so omnipresent on Indian menus in this country that you'd think sheep meat was an Indian staple, but they actually don't eat much lamb in India -- they eat goat. Because Americans have yet to catch on to the delights of strongly flavored, somewhat tough goat meat, though, Indian eateries have had to adapt their cooking techniques to the more tender, milder lamb.

"Lamb is the closest to goat in its flavor and in the way it can be cooked," says Jagmohan Kahlon, co-owner of India's Rang Mahal. "Goat is very, very tough and lean, and it needs long cooking, a lot of marinating and seasoning. Lamb can be cooked that way, and it makes for a dish that is close to the traditional goat, but it is not the same, and so nothing made from lamb tastes the way it would in India. We can get goat, but I don't think anyone will order it."

And Jagmohan, who with his wife, Gian, opened Rang Mahal at the beginning of the year, is having a tough enough time getting people to come to his restaurant at all. The remote space, that sits behind a glass lobby that sits in the back of a plaza that sits at the back of a vast parking lot that's dominated by the Chez Artiste cinema complex, has such a tiny placard on the strip mall's sign that it's impossible to read from busy Colorado Boulevard. "We get a little bit of business from the theater," says Jagmohan. "But it is not enough, and we are not sure we are going to make it."

That would be a shame, because the Kahlons have transformed a former Asian eatery -- the ceiling still bears the ornate squares installed by the former inhabitant, and one wall boasts a relief of some Oriental city -- into a welcoming, perfume-filled Indian spot. In fact, the space is now so dark and cozy that it's truly possible to forget the awful location and settle in for a warm, relaxing meal. The food, cooked by Gian's brother, Vinod Malhopra, is certainly worthy of any setting.

Malhopra has cooked around Denver for more than a decade at places like Gandhi India's Cuisine and Little India; last year, he convinced his brother-in-law, who'd moved from Haryana, India, to the United States in 1977, to leave behind his twenty-year job with a poultry outfit in California and come live his dream of being a Colorado restaurateur. "I did not know how it would go," says Jagmohan. "But I thought Vinod's cooking was too good not to give it a try."

Now that the restraints of cooking in a non-family-owned restaurant have been lifted, Malhopra's dishes have grown in complexity and become more sharply seasoned, although their peppery heat stops short of drowning out flavors. Malhopra likes to play with the spices for which India is so famous: cumin, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, turmeric, coriander, mustard seed and black pepper. Sometimes he pan-fries them whole to bring out the flavors in the seeds' centers, making for a balanced overall taste; sometimes he roasts them for a mellow, more oily quality; sometimes he grinds them up and makes a paste with a small amount of liquid, creating the basis for the marinades and sauces that alternately blend with and intensify the flavors of meats and vegetables.

True to Indian cooking, the offerings at Rang Mahal lean toward healthy, often vegetarian, fare. You can sample quite an assortment at the lunch buffet -- at $5.99 an amazing deal for a dozen entrees, appropriate condiments and lots of the moist, crunchy-edged leavened flatbread called naan. But ordering off the main menu, you get a real taste of authentic Indian food. We found several standouts on the appetizer roster: Crispy spinach pakoras, cumin-scented and filled with fresh greens; mildly spicy aloo tikki, the Indian version of potato pancakes, soft and steamy inside and served with a mound of heavenly curried garbanzo beans; vegetable samosas packed with peas and onions and puffy from the yellow lentils Rang Mahal uses in its batters. In addition to those starters, we tried several vegetarian entrees from more than a dozen listed on the menu, each a full meal served with rice, naan, raita (a cucumber-and-yogurt-based relish) and a simple salad. Most of these wonderfully spiced dishes were based on spinach, potatoes or paneer, a homemade Indian cheese: the saag paneer featured spicier spinach and a harder cheese than found in most Indian versions, and the Bombay alu potatoes were cooked in the tandoor for a more intense, roasted taste than regular oven-cooking can impart. Rang Mahal's well-crafted rice played a starring role in the basmati-based biryani, tinged with saffron and tossed with vegetables, nuts and raisins. But our favorite vegetarian dish was the eggplant bhartha. Tandoor cooking lured a deep, smoky taste out of the purple fruit, which was simmered with green onions, tomatoes, peas and plenty of fresh cilantro and mint, as well as a hefty dose of turmeric, into a delicacy even an eggplant-hater could love.

Much as we enjoyed the kitchen's deft handling of vegetarian fare, we couldn't get enough of Rang Mahal's wonderful lamb. Malhopra offers eight different ways to love lamb dishes, each with its own distinct flavors and preparations, each showcasing the meat's versatility and unique taste and texture. There wasn't a baaad one in the four we tried: rogan josh, a North Indian Muslim preparation that pairs tender cubes of lamb shoulder with an almond-based sauce, here pumped up with cumin, coriander and what tasted like a hint of coconut; keema mattar, ground lamb -- free of the grease of other meats but still slightly oily -- mixed with peas and mushrooms; boti tikka masala, a combination of lamb shoulder cubes roasted in the clay oven and drenched in a rich curry sauce, and the regular lamb curry, for which the lamb had been dry-roasted, then wok-tossed in a medium-spicy curry sauce. (Fair warning: Rang Mahal's medium may be a bit hotter than most.) We also wolfed down a few non-lamb meat dishes: a chicken vindaloo that was juicy and hot as heck; the prawn sagwala that featured medium-sized shrimp cooked in an unusual creamed-spinach concoction that was half Southern mama, half Middle Eastern fusion.

What more could you ask for? Until American diners are willing to let cooks get their goat -- and at this point, even lamb can be a tough sell -- Rang Mahal is as close to a direct passage to India as you're going to find in Denver. And a meal here beats the heck out of a carnival corn dog.