When my arteries start clogging up like Colorado Boulevard, Indian food is just what the doctor ordered. While some cuisines cancel out vegetables and rice with sugary sauces and fatty pork products and still call themselves healthy, this is the real thing: meats marinated in low-fat yogurt, lentil-thickened sauces and spices that transform the blandest of ingredients into aromatherapy.
But like their Chinese and Italian counterparts, most Indian restaurants in this country are guilty of pandering to the lowest common diner, the one afraid to try anything less watered down than Mulligatawny soup (which Indians created in the first place to make their unfamiliar seasonings easier for the British to swallow). In Denver, this injustice is particularly noticeable because there are so few Indian restaurants, and the ones that serve a dish or two beyond the usual repertoire make you pay through the nose ring for the privilege.
It was this dearth of Indian establishments that brought Raj Dhillon and his brothers, Harbhinder and Kamal, to the Denver Tech Center, where they opened Gandhi India's Cuisine in March. The family had owned and operated Indian restaurants in England for twenty years before coming to the States in 1980 because, as Raj says, "the people here were fattened up and needed some guidance."
Well, people here haven't gotten much thinner, but the Dhillons have done their best to guide them down more adventurous paths. Gandhi, their fourth Indian restaurant in this country--the others are in Monterey, California, Las Vegas and Mount Hood Gorge, Oregon--offers the regular roster of curries, tandooris and, yes, Mulligatawny soup, but it also throws in some little-known (in the U.S., at least) delicacies from the food-diverse regions of India. In particular, Gandhi lavishes attention on the north, with its use of clay tandoor ovens, and the south, famous for heavily spiced dishes in which meats and vegetables take a backseat to garlic and chiles.
Gandhi clearly focuses more on food than ambience. The dining room is spacious and comfortable but sparsely decorated, with just a mural, a couple of wall hangings and a mesmerizing blinking spiral that looks like the Indian version of Lite-Brite. But when the stuff coming out of the kitchen is enough to send your tastebuds into overdrive, your other senses don't mind the spartan surroundings.
The best time to embark on this culinary tour of India is during lunch, at the $6.95 all-you-can-eat buffet. This is a deal. Unlike most Asian free-for-alls, which either put out three chafing pans of dry rice or give you an ice cream scoop and twenty minutes to grab what you can, Gandhi's spread boasts two dozen quality dishes that are replenished until the last customers leave (that was us). And in another welcome touch, the restaurant puts index cards by each dish that give its Indian and English names and suggest other foods on the buffet with which it can be paired. For instance, the card above the spinach pakora explained that the fritters had been coated in an Indian flour made from lentils and were to be eaten as finger foods or appetizers with one of the relishes or the chutneys. What the card didn't say was how highly addictive these suckers were. They tasted strongly of spinach, and although they'd been deep-fried, they were light and not the slightest bit greasy.
But the pakora was just one of the reasons we kept bellying up to the buffet. The hot-from-the-tandoor naan was another. The bubbly flatbread worked well as a utensil for scooping up purees such as channa dal, a soupy sauce of mashed chickpeas mixed with fresh cilantro and mint. The pilau (pilaf), basmati rice perked up by saffron and cumin, also proved a worthy vehicle for an assortment of purees, many of them lentil-based.
Lentils are to vegetarian Indians what tofu is to vegetarians in other countries--a major protein substitute. At Gandhi's buffet, a variety of spices kept the lentil offerings from tasting redundant. We encountered the legumes not just in the flour coating the pakora and as the base of purees, but also as lentil cakes coated in yogurt, as creamed lentils spiced with coriander and ginger, and in the dal soup, made from split pink lentils, cumin and turmeric.
Some type of soup is always part of the buffet, along with a salad and dessert (kheer, sweet creamed rice covered with slivered almonds, during our visit). According to Raj, the kitchen rotates about seventy recipes for the main and side dishes, but the condiment lineup is a constant: a sweet, fruity tamarind sauce; a potent southern-Indian mixture of tomatoes and red chiles; kachumbar, a sauce of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and onions with the nuttiness of roasted cumin; and a fresh mint chutney that went great with the clay-oven-baked potatoes.
We didn't need any additives for the vegetable curry, which combined potatoes, eggplant and cauliflower in a medium-hot curry blend light on the fenugreek, a celerylike herb that dominates cheap commercial curry powders. Instead, Gandhi's homemade curry featured the perfect balance of coriander, cumin, turmeric and mace for a refined finish that nicely set off a chicken preparation with fenugreek leaf in its yogurt sauce. The chicken that came out of the tandoor, though, was the least appealing part of lunch--the drumsticks were dry and chewy and lacked the moist tenderness that usually results when high-heat conditions sear the exterior and quickly cook the meat inside.
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The tandoori chicken was no better at dinner. Two tiny pieces of the pinkish-orange fowl (traditionally, Indians brush a nontoxic dye on tandoori foods) came with the Madras thali ($13.95), one of the combination dinners that seemed a good way to keep trying as many different items as we could. This platter (thali refers to the silver partitioned serving plate) held eight items, but that count included the minuscule taste of chicken; chapati, a wheat bread similar to naan; a lame salad of four matchbook-sized slips of lettuce and a dying tomato wedge; raita, the cooling yogurt sauce that counteracts anything involving hot chiles; and lots of rice--albeit good rice. Both the lentils and the mattar paneer, peas with Indian cheese, were pungent with spices and substantial in portion. The reduced sauce of the excellent prawn curry was so well-melded that it was impossible to single out any one ingredient in the complex mix--but it wasn't hard to pick out the miserly allotment of four small shrimp.
The sum of all these parts didn't equal fourteen bucks.
The Bombay thali ($13.95) had the same assortment of salad, lentils and raita, but it also brought chicken in a superb roasted coconut sauce whose heady, creamy richness deserved to cloak more than two small chunks of meat. And we certainly wanted more than two tiny slabs of lamb cooked dum-style--in a pot sealed with a piece of dough so that the steam, and flavor, stayed in.
We were still hungry when the plates were cleared, but thoughts of dessert (it comes with the combination dinners) kept our spirits up. Until that course appeared, that is, and we again found ourselves facing miniature helpings. The saffron-mango ice cream was sweet and a good counterpoint to the fiery flavors of the main courses; the other dessert offering, two measly cheese rounds soaked in syrup, had been microwaved into spongy little balls that were too hot to eat for ten minutes.
Indian food is supposed to be healthy, but that doesn't mean the portions have to be so small that they make servings at the Golden Door look gluttonous. Until Gandhi's exhibits a healthy respect for average appetites, I'll limit my passages to India to trips to that buffet table.