Paint the Town
When I first sat down at Maruti Narayan's, the table was a blank canvas, holding only white plates and white napkins set against a white tablecloth. By the end of the meal, it was chaos, a full-color topographical portrait of the Indian subcontinent done entirely in shades of food. There were golden deserts of pastry dough spotted with pools of sweet red chutney; a cool pistachio-green dipping sauce of mint, milk and coconut laid down beside an electric-jade chile; a creamy raita the color of sea foam shot through with slivers of bright-orange carrot. The saag paneer was thick and arboreal as a jungle seen from above, and the kormas and dosas were crisp hills standing by a strange, lumpy sea the color of pumpkins and traffic lights that smelled of curry, black pepper, turmeric, onion and clove.
All through the meal, I'd awkwardly insisted that my server leave the plates long after I'd finished with them because disturbing the arrangement would have ruined the picture that was forming. It was an art project -- an abstract representation of all the color potential that exists in food -- and after my utter decimation of something like seven courses over an hour and a half, there was a kind of beauty in what was left on the table. It was the historical record of a meal made with care and devoured with passion. It was consumption in extremis.
But finally my waitress, no doubt sick of watching me play with my food, came and cleared everything away. The fun was over, and you'd think I'd be embarrassed -- a grown man screwing around like Richard Dreyfuss making his mashed-potato mountain in Close Encounters -- but you'd be wrong. For one thing, I've gotten used to amusing myself while dining alone. More important, there was no one else in the entire dining room to embarrass myself in front of. But for me, my very tolerant waitress and the soft, worldbeat Muzak playing in the background, this place was as silent as the grave.
Meanwhile, just across the parking lot, a legion of timid, pasty suburbanites were lining up in front of the Subway counter. Not far away, Carrabba's and the Outback Steakhouse were jumping. Across town, McDonald's drive-throughs were backed up with SUVs, people were stacked up on benches in the 90-degree heat waiting for the dubious privilege of being seated at an Olive Garden -- and I was still sitting here all alone. I knew people were hungry; what I didn't get is why they weren't here.
True, the location is bad: Maruti Narayan's is tucked into the furthest tier of a labyrinthine shopping plaza sharing a block with Latino and Indian markets and a Ginza spa. And what with all of that construction around Parker Road and I-225, it's not easy to see that the place has recently grown into a restaurant -- much less a great one. After operating a coffee shop with some takeout and a limited menu of south Indian food for years, owners Bidhya and Ashim Narayan expanded into the storefront next door. Six months ago they opened it up into the bright, cool and comfortable dining room where they're now offering all of India, Nepal and Tibet simply laid out for us on a plate.
What's a Big Mac run you these days? Probably around two bucks? Well, for two and a quarter, I was down the road enjoying samosa -- gently spiced mashed potatoes and sweet green peas folded inside an envelope of crisp, deep-fried pastry that arrived at my table like a letter from foreign latitudes. Biting into it released the scent of cilantro and warm chile, and smearing a corner with the deep-red tamarind chutney added a high note of sweetness that sang across the tip of my tongue and harmonized in exotic weirdness with the weight and earthiness of the starch.
For even less than the price of a Big Mac, you can pick from one of nine breads on Maruti Narayan's menu. Granted, they're not all perfect -- the paratha (a layered flat bread) was dry and overcooked on one occasion, doughy and under-done on others -- but the naan brushed with ghee (naan is a soft bread left to crisp and blister in the heat of a tandoor oven; ghee is Indian clarified butter, browned to give it a caramelized flavor and a higher smoking point) was so good that I wanted to find the person responsible for making it and pay him to live in my kitchen closet and do nothing but bake fresh naan for me all day, every day for the rest of my fat and happy life.
There were curries here worth a crosstown drive, and Nepalese food for which I'd cross borders. Illegally. I tried bateta vada (similar to samosa in that its heart is spiced potato, but different because it's battered before frying), which I unknowingly dipped in a tin bowl of daal (lentil) soup. Everything I ordered at Maruti Narayan's seemed to come with two or three other things I hadn't ordered, but which were wonderful in their own right and seemed perfectly appropriate as dips. I wolfed down maybe a dozen little chewy Nepalese steamed dumplings called momo, stuffed with savory ground turkey and served with a hot tomato achaar (Tibetan pickled tomato). I chased these with a double dose of lassi, the world's most perfect non-alcoholic summer drink, made with blended fruit, ice and yogurt. But Maruti Narayan's managed to improve on perfection, serving up lassi that were smooth and mellow -- in my case, one mango and one cinnamon -- without the sour, yogurt-y bite I'd come to expect from other versions.
I don't understand why some poor souls would spend twenty bucks on limp pasta or assembly-line marsala rather than order off a menu like this. The food, coming from half a world away, seems less foreign to me than people who can eat dinner out of a paper bag with a clown's head on it night after night. Foreign cuisine can be intimidating; I get that. The words on the menu are strange, and sometimes you can't tell exactly what you're eating. Sometimes you taste something you've never experienced before, something for which you have no frame of reference. I understand that: It happens to me all the time. Food is my life, but still, almost every day, some kitchen or some cook reminds me that I will never, ever know everything there is to know.
Alone in the dining room, I could smell the saag paneer coming before it even left the kitchen. Its aroma was thick, murky, steaming with the jungle reek of stemmed spinach cooked down so completely that it disintegrated into soft chunks, deep green and heavy with a flavor more like that of collard greens than anything else. It came to my table still sweating and humid from the pan, studded with cubes of stiff, fresh paneer cheese (made by hand in the kitchen) and blended in a curry sauce so mild and perfectly balanced that the first bite was like a whisper, the second a hiss, the third a sigh. This dish never raised its voice to get my attention. It never had to.
Brighter chefs and better diners than I have suggested that saag paneer is a benchmark of Indian cooking and a fair indicator of the skill present in the kitchen that prepares it. They say that if the saag is good, you can feel confident that the rest of the restaurant's menu will be up to the same standard. Maruti Narayan's saag wasn't just good; it was excellent -- among the best I've ever had -- and it set a standard of taste and equilibrium against which I judged everything else. It never flaunted its ingredients or complexity, but instead had a confidence and solidity that spoke volumes about the hands that made it.
In contrast, on another visit, there were kormas that shouted "Curry!" from the rooftops, and a Nepalese lamb dish that did the same, only much louder. I also tried the dosas -- thin, brittle crepes as long as my forearm, laced with ghee and rolled around cheeses, more spiced potatoes or vegetables and served with a blur of different sauces, all spicy, cool, salty or hot. They were wonderful and strange, but overwhelming.
After that, I sampled dishes whose names I couldn't tell you even if my job depended on it. There were potatoes in a curried cream sauce with fennel seeds and clove that I could taste in the back of my throat an hour after I'd gone home; small tin cups of mint and cilantro sauce; the tamarind chutney that should -- by law -- be available in every restaurant everywhere, like ketchup or wet-naps; and daal soups that, once I realized they were soups, served to settle the stomach nicely after I gorged myself on more momo and masala dosas. Although I couldn't, in good conscience, recommend the dahi vada to anyone who isn't comfortable eating something that tastes exactly like a cold lentil-flour doughnut dipped in yogurt, I can heartily support the gobbling up of gulab jamun -- a dessert of sweet milk balls in honey syrup -- by the gallon. Again, a cinnamon lassi was the perfect accompaniment.
I'll probably never understand why some people eat the things they eat (and don't eat the things they won't), but after visiting Maruti Narayan's -- standing stuffed and exhausted, watching the cars go by and steeling myself for the twenty-foot waddle to my car -- I didn't care. All I was worried about was how I was going to sneak another meal here into my own crowded schedule. I'll worry about the rest of you later.
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