There are nights when I crave the unique and adventurous, the dishes with names I can't pronounce and ingredients I've never heard of, much less shopped for or cooked at home -- tropical fruits with pungent or savory back notes, the odd bits of meat that never even see a grocery-store butcher counter, bitter greens that may be backyard staples in another part of the world. But then I realize those foods are only unique and adventurous because I've never tried them, and that many ethnic specialties are really everyday dishes in their homelands or perhaps perennial favorites eaten only during special occasions or holidays. A Thanksgiving turkey may be a once-a-year treat, but it's hardly exotic or intimidating, unless perhaps you're from a place with no turkeys. Little India (the quiet one in the University of Denver neighborhood) has become my fallback restaurant, my back-up date, for times when I want Indian flavors, only with the guaranteed comfort of a family dinner or a holiday meal. It's a place where the food is consistent, approachable, even mild -- but sometimes that's exactly what I crave.
That's not to say that the food at Little India is boring or tired. But the kitchen has been mixing up curries and grilling meats in the tandoori oven since 1998 with few changes to the menu, and in a neighborhood where change is measure by new coats of paint on the houses every few years. Little India reflects its surroundings, offering tranquility, stability and calm, even as change and modernization sweep through more northerly neighborhoods and trendy streets.
A meal at Little India always starts with crisp sheets of papadum served with a sweet and dark tamarind chutney and a mild, deep green cilantro chutney. And for me, if not for many other diners, it usually ends with a bowl of creamy kheer, a lightly sweetened rice pudding perfumed with cardamom and topped with slivered almonds. In between, I might go with a madras curry or a korma. This time I stuck with the homey chicken tikka which the kitchen, in a nod to modernity, serves fajitas-style on a sizzling platter of grilled onions. It's Mom's chicken, on a day that Mom found a new blend on the spice rack at the supermarket. But it's more than that, too, as evidenced by the bright red skin and soft, if not juicy, meat that pulls easily from the bone. The heat of the tandoor oven intensifies the marinade and seals the spices onto the meat in a way that's more than just a shake of the spice jar.
On some nights, if you're lucky, one of the owners will also be out in the dining room or on the sun-warmed patio, waiting tables. We were lucky on this visit and received a recommendation for the "special lamb," an off-menu house favorite that features a blend of the kitchen's vindaloo and masala sauces in an almost unreal shade of velvet red. The lamb is softer than boiled potatoes and robed in a complex, creamy sauce that's been hit with handfuls of cilantro and tangy crumbles of paneer cheese. It's a stew as pleasing as a hearty bowl on a winter day, but packed with the summery flavors of cooked-down tomatoes, bright herbs and just enough spice to draw beads of sweat without scorching the tongue. The air on the patio is calm and cool; the sun vanishes a little earlier than expected. The last hours of one of summer's last days cling in the branches above the sidewalks. The remnants of our meal still give off wafts of garam masala, caramelized onion, cumin and curry.
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It's not a complicated thing to relax and enjoy food without analyzing, studying or scrutinizing. But sometimes it's a rare thing -- a meal with no expectations, a conversation about nothing in particular with no distractions or concerns. And when you're done and you push away from the table, contented but not full, it's enough to say thanks, and to have them say in honest reply: "You're welcome."