India Grill may be derivative, but it's also delicious

December 14, 1990|By Lynn Williams | Lynn Williams,Sun Restaurant Critic

India Grill

Where: 1017 S. Charles St.

AHours: Lunch buffet daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.

Features: Indian dishes.

ll: 962-1554.

Non-smoking section: No, but staff will try to accommodate non-smokers' needs. Indian food fans might be tempted to sing "Send in the Clones." Not only does the India Grill's name sound suspiciously "inspired" by the Bombay Grill, but the menu prose is close enough to seem like a rip-off, not a mere spinoff.

Well, it may be a copycat, but it's a copycat that knows its stuff. The Punjabi chefs do a very creditable job with the style of Indian cooking that the Bombay Grill pioneered here -- more complex, ** varied and sophisticated than conventional curries -- and my companion, who is of Indian descent, gave it a knowledgeable thumbs-up.

It wasn't that long ago that Indian restaurants were invariably funky, with printed bedspreads and travel posters on the walls and ragas on the sound system. At India Grill the ragas remain, but the dining room, which once housed the forgettable Noodles and Jason Charles' Place, is dusty rose, with a pressed-tin ceiling and sweet French provincial cafe curtains. The unwary might well wander in looking for crepes. If they are adventurous, they will stay and have some soup.

The India Grill's soups may strike the uninitiated as weird, but they prove surprisingly addictive. The Malabar shrimp soup ($2.25) registers first as sweet and coconutty, then a piercing citrus tang takes over -- unexpected but alluring. The lentil-based vegetable soup ($1.50) also had intriguing strata of flavor, and an irresistible coriander-laced freshness.

A mixed appetizer platter ($5.50) was on again, off again. The samosa's meat filling was underspiced and the thick pastry so greasy that oil dripped from our fingers. And the chicken pakora was dry. On the plus side, the leeko chicken patties were packed with spicy, gingery flavor, and the mamosa made up for the samosa's failings with a cinnamon-zesty lamb filling and a thin, tasty dough wrapper.

Lobster is always a luxury, and the claw meat in the lobster Malabar ($13.95) didn't disappoint, although the sauce, a well-spiced cream with tomato and a characteristically fragrant Indian bouquet of spices, was too overpoweringly rich to show it off to best advantage. Chicken jal frezi ($7.95), a stir-fried dish of chicken breast and vegetables in a creamy, tangy sauce with a tart aftertaste, was a success, although I might have preferred something that contrasted better with the creaminess of the lobster.

Indian desserts are admittedly an acquired taste, but once you've acquired it you'll be loath to go back to cheesecake. Kheer ($1.75) is usually described as rice pudding, but it has a richness and almond perfume that the American version couldn't touch. And the honey-soaked balls called gulab jamun ($2.25) were the best version of this Indian classic I have tasted, warm and melt-in-the-mouth soft.

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