The right spices are critical to Indian cuisine; in fact, the meats, vegetables and breads coming out of the kitchen primarily serve as delivery vehicles for all those heady flavors and aromas. So if you don't get a whiff of something wonderful the minute you walk through the door of an Indian eatery, turn around and walk out. Quickly.
But if the door you've walked through leads to Little India, prepare to stay awhile. Here the pungent scents of tamarind, cloves, garlic, ginger and mesquite nearly knock you down the moment you step inside. The odors were so strong during a recent meal there that the next morning, my hair smelled like I'd washed it in a tandoor oven. And since that oven belonged to Little India, I'll bet my hair would have tasted good.
Simeran S. Baidwan and his cousin, Vaneet "Vinny" Malhotra, opened their restaurant in June 1998, taking over a spot on Sixth Avenue previously occupied by the vegetarian Creative Cafe and, before that, by a series of fast-food joints. "I have a business degree, and Vinny and I wanted to do something exciting," says Baidwan. "Of course, that was before we realized how not exciting the restaurant business can be, unless headaches are exciting to you."
One of their first headaches was to make the space appealing for sit-down dining. "We're still working on changing some things," says Baidwan. "Every day, I see something new that I want to do to make it better."
As far as I'm concerned, the room is fine right now. White linen tablecloths, burgundy napkins and accents, a sparse but elegant collection of artwork and some greenery combine for an upscale look that's also fairly casual. That means that everyone from college kids on a budget to couples out for an intimate evening to TV personalities ditching out between broadcasts can feel comfortable here. And since the tables are much more spread out than they were at the overly jammed Creative Cafe (Little India seats only fifty) and beer and wine are available, diners not only feel comfortable, they are comfortable.
The cousins brought Salinder Singh, a former resident of New Delhi, out from San Diego to take over the kitchen. Baidwan knows good cooking when he tastes it -- his Punjab-born mother is "an awesome cook," he says -- and he chose well with Singh. The chef's $5.95 lunch buffet won Little India a Best of Denver award this year; it's a generous spread of dishes people actually want to eat, such as saffron-infused dal and turmeric-dusted potatoes, rather than the usual dry rice and drier chicken wings. Ordering off the regular menu can be equally rewarding. For example, there's an unusual tandoori Cornish game hen ($10.95) that makes those frou-frou French versions seem like pointless, exhausting exercises in tearing tiny amounts of meat off tinier bones. Little India's mesquite-fired clay-oven cooking process rendered the hen's flesh moist inside and crispy out, and the marinating medium -- a combination of yogurt, garlic, ginger and parsley -- made for a sweet and spicy skin.
The rest of Little India's roster is more traditional but no less satisfying. An order of saag paneer ($9.95) brought creamy-textured, nutmeg-enhanced spinach further flavored by large chunks of homemade cheese and minced onion. Although the tandoori mixed grill ($15.95) skipped the Cornish hens, it included chicken, lamb, halibut steak and shrimp kabobs, all lying atop onion slices on a sizzling platter. A thick, potent curry sauce draped the tandoori-cooked lamb masala ($12.95); the potato-heavy shrimp vindaloo ($13.95) breathed fire; the combination biryani ($12.95) satisfied with a comforting mix of lamb, chicken, broccoli and carrots cooked with basmati rice and colored yellow with saffron. While all of these dishes carried price tags that seem standard for Indian restaurants, the portions -- and the taste -- qualified as quite extraordinary.
Another shining example of great Indian cuisine is proffered by Star of India, a comfortable joint located in an Aurora strip mall. Eight months ago, Paul Gill quit being an absentee owner and moved to Denver from Arizona, where his Indian eateries had earned regular Best of Phoenix awards from Westword's sibling, the Phoenix New Times. Once in Colorado, he found himself in good company: His uncle, Harjinder "Gil" Gill, is responsible for building or launching more than 25 Indian eateries across Colorado; his cousin, Gurjeet Dhanoa, owns Tandoori Grill in Boulder with her husband, Paul Dhanoa. "So you see, there was family here already," explains Paul Gill. "And it was hard taking care of a place that we couldn't look in on every day and see how things were going. And the market here is so much better than in Phoenix, and since the place here wasn't being run right, I thought it was the right time to move."
When Paul came to reclaim Star of India, he brought his immediate family -- including Mom, Dad, brothers and sisters -- along with him. "I've done no other kind of work in my life," says Gill. "I started working in restaurants when I was eleven, and it was breaking my heart that the people we had hired to run Star of India were not doing what they said."
Those people were the same ones who'd run the ill-fated Taj Mahal on 17th Avenue. But while Star of India never closed, Gill says it will still take some time to convince Aurora diners that the eatery is under new management and that the problems of the past are over. "The food was not being done properly, and they let the place run down," he explains. "I've had people come in and think it must be an entirely new restaurant."
It certainly looks like a new restaurant: Gill upgraded nearly everything, buying new furniture and repainting the walls. The low lighting, cheerful bar area and elegant fixtures go a long way toward helping diners forget the restaurant is located in a strip mall, and the friendliness of the Gill family (yes, they all work here) makes the Star glow.
Paul Gill's mom, Kapoor Gill, worked with chef Balwant Singh on the menu. "The recipes come from both of them," Paul says. "And my dad, Gurmukh, well, we try to keep him in the kitchen, but he's always coming out to offer people free samples of stuff. He's going to give away the store one of these days. He just likes to see people enjoying the food, which is why we all went into this in the first place."
During my two visits to the restaurant, I watched father and son hand out homemade mango ice cream to two tables, bring a big platter of complimentary kabobs to another, and entice yet a fourth to try some curry that Gurmukh offered from a big serving bowl. My table was on the receiving end of several unordered mango milkshakes -- "Kids love these," Paul said as he handed them over, and he was right -- as well as a second, free order of tandoori wings ($4.25), addictive appendages that put Buffalo's version to shame. And we liked our meat samosas ($3.25) so much that Gurmukh sent out two gratis orders of the vegetable version. For both the meat and veggie versions, fat wads of dough had been filled with curried ground lamb and beef or potatoes and peas, then deep-fried until the shells puffed up crispy and piping hot.
After those starters, we still somehow found room for the lamb korma ($10.95), tender chunks of meat stewed in a mildly spiced, yogurt-based sauce bolstered with onions, nuts and coconut milk, as well as an extremely hot shrimp vindaloo ($10.95), with plenty of potatoes to soak up the fiery red sauce and lots of parsley for color. Almost as searing was the saag paneer ($8.95), an onion-packed take on the spinach dish. We cooled off with garlic naan -- all of the breads at Star of India are done exceptionally well -- as well as kabli naan ($2.50), which arrived studded with raisins and nuts. But the real standout was the lamb boti kabob ($11.95), lamb so soft and delicious it seemed almost unnatural.
And it smelled like heaven.