I spent some time in Asia this fall, and when I got home, everyone asked the same questions: "How was the flight?" and "What was the best thing you ate?" The first was easy to answer. The flight was long, all fourteen hours of it, especially since I was on an older, TV-less 747 with a seatmate who talked in her sleep and bumped me repeatedly as she flailed in her dreams. But the second question was much more difficult. Was the best thing I ate the sushi I had one morning for breakfast after wandering the aisles of Tokyo's bustling fish market? A bowl of rich, porky chashu ramen? Fresh soy milk with grass jelly? A bracing cup of Vietnamese coffee from a locally owned coffee shop in Saigon?
No, my favorite dish came from a no-frills vegetarian restaurant in the Indian quarter of Singapore, a place where people took any open seat, ate curries off banana leaves with their fingers, and washed up in the communal sink in the heart of the dining room. Indians make up one of the largest ethnic groups in Singapore, an island off the coast of Malaysia that's fast convincing me and the rest of the world that it's home to the globe's best food. And so good was the chole bhatura — spiced chickpeas with deep-fried bread — that I even popped in for some takeout before heading to the airport.
See also: A Closer Look at Namaste India
5545 Wadsworth Bypass, Unit G, Arvada
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Vegetable samosas $4.95
Chole bhatura $12.95
Saag paneer $11.95
Chicken tikka masala $13.95
Baigan bharta $12.95
Chicken jalfrazie $13.95
Lamb vindaloo $14.95
Chicken Tibetan noodles $11.95
Little wonder, then, that at Namaste India, an Indian restaurant that opened six months ago in Arvada — but with burgundy-and-cream tablecloths, silk flowers and unadorned walls, the place could easily turn into an Italian joint tomorrow and no one would bat an eye — I quickly flipped past the kormas, tikka masalas and saags on the multi-page menu. I was looking for the dish I'd happily slurped out of a baggie (Singapore's version of a takeout box) and finally found it, buried at the bottom of Namaste's lengthy vegetarian section.
But this chole bhatura wouldn't inspire anyone to make a detour on the way to DIA. Where was the bread that popped like a small balloon, releasing steam that burned my hands as I waited impatiently to rip off a bite? Where were the ginger, cumin and amchoor (dried mango powder) that had laced the other sauce with such irresistible fragrance that I'd used every bit of the bread — and when that ran out, my fingers — to lap it up? Where were the chiles, which had snapped my tongue to attention? This version was like many others I've eaten stateside — which is to say it was like ketchup when you're hoping for barbecue sauce.
Namaste's kitchen, run by co-owner Ramnath Sah, who's from Nepal, does stock ginger, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, coriander and chiles. But like so many Indian, Chinese, Thai and Malaysian restaurants in this country, it tends to turn down the heat and scale back the spices in order to please an American audience.
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And most Denver diners are likely to be pleased with Namaste, since without knowing what they're missing (consistently freshly ground spices, for example), its fare seems solid — if more cautious than I'd hoped for. Particularly good is the korma, a dish I usually stay away from given its tendency to taste like cream and little else. Here it's more nuanced, made with coconut flakes, nuts and more coconut milk than cream, and just enough tomato gravy to stain the sauce an appealing orangish-yellow. Lamb vindaloo, a specialty of the Indian state of Goa, promises more intrigue, with ample spices and plenty of lemon juice (recipes typically call for vinegar and mustard seeds). This welcome splash of acidity makes it a good dish to pair with richer fare such as chicken tikka masala, with its cream-heavy tomato gravy, or saag paneer, an equally decadent preparation of chopped spinach, housemade cheese and cream. Not even the vindaloo could balance the richness of the baigan bharta, though, with roasted eggplant that seemed to be neither chopped nor mashed (as is usually the case), but whipped. With a liberal dose of cream and extra sweetness from caramelized onions, it reminded me of an eggplant version of the corn soufflé my grandmother used to make on Thanksgiving — and just as I always did with that dish, I enjoyed a few bites and left the rest. After all, there's only so much cream a girl can take, even on holidays.
The baigan bharta is a good dish to share, since you'll only want a small serving. So is jalfrazie, a cream-less curry loaded with cauliflower, carrots, broccoli and red peppers. But if you'd rather not order family-style, the extensive buffet is a good bet. Offered at lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner on Thursday, the spread generally includes nine or so entrees, several appetizers and a handful of desserts. The selection changes daily, however, so call before dropping by if you're set on, say, samosas, sweet chile-glazed Tibetan noodles with tandoori-grilled chicken, or a few bites of that eggplant.
Though certain dishes here (bland sweet-potato masala, I'm thinking of you, and ditto for the overly sweet chai) definitely seem tailored to American audiences, general manager and co-owner Bibek Rauniyar, who moved to Colorado from Nepal to pursue a degree in chemistry and math and who worked throughout college at Yak & Yeti and Jewel of India, stresses that, for the most part, Namaste's food is prepared as it would be made at home. The crispy discs of papad may not be made from scratch from chickpeas and set in the sun to dry, for example, but the whole-wheat bread known as roti is made just the way his mom made it when he was growing up. "In India or Nepal, not everyone has a tandoor oven, because it's expensive," Rauniyar explains. So his mom made it in a pan, which is how it's made at Namaste, too, over low heat and flipped many times to keep it from hardening like a cracker.
While I may not have gotten the bhatura I was hoping for, my ghee-brushed roti was very good, especially when dragged through the last bits of that spicy vindaloo. I wouldn't mind a to-go box of that on my next trip out Peña Boulevard.