From Non-believer To Convert

DINING OUT

April 14, 1991|By Janice Baker

India Grill, 1015-19 S. Charles St., 962-1554

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 3 p.m to 11 p.m.

Accepts: ** /- *

Features: Indian cooking

No-smoking section: No

Wheelchair access: Yes We'd planned on a French dinner and asked a friend who likes French cooking to join us. At the last moment, we found we couldn't get a reservation. Dressed and hungry, I pressed the India Grill. Our friend looked unhappy. He had no fondness for Indian food. "It's always red. The meats and the breads are always dry." "It won't be like that at all," I said. It wasn't.

The India Grill on South Charles Street is new, and joins a group of small eateries near the Cross Street Market -- Bandaloops, Regi's, Sisson's and Tabrizi's among them. We found the grill packed. On a Tuesday.

There was one last table, behind a thick post by the door. We took it and stared around. Very pink. Definitely pleasant. Mirrors, cloths on the tables, and glossy, deep-pink embossed metal panels on the walls.

The manager, Mandeep Singh, and one of the chefs, Jarnail Singh, came to the India Grill from the Bombay Grill. Consequently, we weren't surprised to find the India Grill's menu almost identical to the Bombay Grill's. Here and there, prices were about $1 lower, probably reflecting lower rents on South Charles Street relative to Mount Vernon Place.

Before we ordered, we considered backing out. Competing for attention with so many people, would we all have headaches by the time we were served? Our waiter reassured us. We would be eating within 10 minutes. He was right, and as it turned out, service was smooth all evening long. Food came quickly, we received clean utensils for each course, and we had our bill within minutes of asking for it.

We began with a bowl of mulligatawny soup ($1.75) and the India Grill combination appetizer platter ($4.50). The soup was elegant in its flavors: gently split pea in a soothing mild meat broth containing shreds of chicken and other meat. We thought the meat-stuffed pastries on the platter much less oily than many, and much meatier. One was big and plump as an apple dumpling, another smaller. There was also a nugget of marinated fried chicken breast, and a spicy chicken patty. What made them a particular pleasure were two dishes of sauce, one sweet, spiced like mincemeat pie and studded with raisins, the other fiery hot, and creamy with yogurt and pureed fresh coriander.

Our main courses were tandoori fish tikka ($10.50), murgh masalam ($10.95) and lamb saag ($9.95). They came to the table sizzling and steaming, on piping hot plates. We couldn't guess what white fish was used for the fish tikka. No matter. The fillet was large -- approximately 3 inches by 6 inches -- and, though it was drier than many of us prefer now, its tastes were clean and its chewy, spicy edges likable. An essential additional feature was a mass of just-cooked sliced onions whose oils, flavor and sweetness married well with the fish.

Murgh masalam was described on the menu as a "tender Cornish hen, stuffed with a unique blend of fresh herbs and vegetables . . . simmered in a steamy, golden sauce." The hen was, as promised, tender. It also came with other large chunks of poultry, a pleasing melange of rice and grated carrot, and slices of cucumber and tomato. The sauce was excellent and intriguing in flavor.

I can never resist a plate of lamb saag (lamb with creamed spinach). India Grill's had much less of a fresh-spinach taste than some versions, and was very mild, but we liked its creamy texture and the tender squares of stewed lamb hidden within the spiced puree.

For starches, we ordered breads, even though a lovely, large dish of rice mixed with grated carrot and caraway seeds came with two of our dinners. Our friend who feared dry breads took most passionately to the puri ($1), a dinner-plate-sized disk of deep-fried wheat bread. Though edged with oil, it tasted free of grease. More to my own taste, naan ($1) was a large circle of unleavened white bread resembling a thin, mammoth pita, but pocked with bubbles of char from contact with the hot oven walls.

Our desserts were simple, a dish of kulfi ($2.25), an evaporated-milk ice cream flavored with rose water, and saffrani rasmalai ($2.25), which set a circle of snow-white homemade cheese in a pool of saffron-flavored milk. Both were topped with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios.

India Grill, like a number of other good ethnic restaurants in town, offers interesting food in abundance at reasonable prices. We ordered far more than we would have if we had not been reviewing the restaurant. With three 22-ounce Taj Mahal beers at $5 each, our bill came to $66 before tip.

Twenty-two dollars apiece for a large, delicious dinner out may have converted our reluctant friend. Almost nothing had been red; the bread was enjoyable; the fish's dryness was countered by onions; we'd liked virtually everything. *

Next: Scarlett Cove Cafe

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