Akbar has taken to advertising itself with the line "Voted Best Indian Restaurant by The Baltimore Sun." When I first saw this, I was tempted to ask for a recount. Nobody had asked me, and frankly, my vote would have gone elsewhere.
But hey, everybody loves a winner, and the time seemed ripe to find out whether or not Akbar had improved since my last visit. (Which was, I figured, just before Bombay Grill opened.)
While I still wouldn't give it top honors, Akbar turned out to be much better than remembered. It seems to have plenty of fans, too; by 7 p.m. on a Tuesday it was packed. Diners were drawn, certainly, not only by the food, but by the visual appeal of the small, basement-level room. Moghul-inspired patterned paper on one wall, a space-stretching expanse of mirror on the other, and warm red tones all contribute to an atmosphere that is intimate, but more formal than funky.
My dining companion -- who has spent some time in India -- was also pleased to note that the menu features dishes from several regions of the subcontinent, and includes choices that aren't typical of the standard Anglo-Indian repertory. And if you want it hot, the chefs will take you at your word.
Bored with the same old samosas, we opened the meal with a platter of chane ki chaat ($2.50), a chilled salad composed of chickpeas, diced potatoes, tomatoes and green bell peppers tossed in a tangy sauce of tamarind and spices. It was exceptionally refreshing, but substantial and filling, too.
"Mulligatawny soup" ($1.75) always sounded to me as if it should be on an Irish menu, but the name is really a corrupted version of the Tamil words for "pepper water" -- a misleading name for a complex golden puree of lentils, made even more intriguing by a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
We opted for one mild entree, crab Malabar ($12.25), and the incendiary chicken Madras ($10.95). The shreds of crab had been mixed, according to the menu, with onions, tomato, fennel, coriander and cream, but none of these individual flavors were distinguishable; all had merged in the alchemy that is Indian cooking. The dish would have been great had salt not been a dominant seasoning. As for the chicken, it had been napped in a red sauce with a sour vinegar bite that wasn't at all unpleasant. But we had to make our judgments about the flavors quickly, before they were seared away by the sheer heat of the dish.
The desserts are sublime: tender gulab jamun ($2), delightfully sauced with honey, rose water and lemon, and kulfi ($2.50), which might be called ice cream (but isn't really), a petite, rose-scented cylinder of unsurpassed richness.
Where: 823 N. Charles St.
Hours: Open for lunch noon to 3 p.m. Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m Sundays to Thursdays, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Lunch buffet available every day except Saturday.
Credit Cards: AE, DC, MC, V.
Features: Indian cuisine.
Non-smoking section? No.