In its name, Akbar honors Jellaladin Mohammed Akbar, who is said to have been the greatest and wisest of the Mogul emperors of India. In 1556, eight years before Shakespeare's birth, he succeeded to the Mogul throne. By the age of 52, he ruled more of India than anyone before him. It was the Moguls who introduced a Turko-Persian cuisine to India that, according to cookbook writer Julie Sahni, "was the food of the aristocrats."
Akbar the restaurant, in practice, and in two locations, is more amiable than regal. Its Charles Street rooms are generally known because they've been open for seven years now. Therefore, on this occasion we drove to the other Akbar, in Randallstown, on the south side of Liberty Road, two miles outside the Beltway. We found a simple, cement-block building, entered through a plain front door that belied a pleasant, large room inside, loosely separated into three areas with costumed Indian dolls propped in the room dividers.
Against one wall, a glass-enclosed room had three doors, one that opened into the dining room, and two that led to the kitchen. We were told there were tandoor ovens in the room, and that it was used on busy nights to demonstrate tandoor cooking.
We rose to stare in, when a dignified, well-spoken man, whom we took to be the proprietor, came to talk. We learned that tandoor ovens are made of clay, are shaped like the large water jars pictured in children's Bible story books, and can be set in ordinary kitchen counters. Fires are built in the round bottoms of the yard-deep jars, and when the temperature rises to something like 800 degrees, a skilled chef stands skewers packed with meat into them and applies round disks of bread dough to their ceramic sides. I'd always pictured tandoor ovens as horizontally set affairs, like classic French bread ovens, and enjoyed being set straight.
Menus at both Akbars are identical. Appetizers included samosas, which somewhat resemble Cornish pastries, and pakoras, which are batter-dipped fritters. We tried a plate of vegetable samosas ($2.50) and a bowl of mulligatawny soup ($1.75). The apple-sized samosas had a sturdy, not-fatty crust, and were filled with a healthy combination of spiced potatoes and peas. We dipped pieces into two sauces, one hot and acid, containing chilies and tamarind sauce, and the other a mint-and-yogurt version of a sauce -- made with pureed green coriander -- that's more usual in Indian restaurants.
The mulligatawny soup was an uncomplicated version of a soup Anglo-Indian in origin and extraordinarily various in practice. Many mulligatawny soups contain shreds of meat; this was a mild and comforting soup of pureed dals, or peas and beans, spiced with the faint edge of cloves and something hot.
For main courses, we ordered one of the chef's recommendations, the vegetarian thali ($11.95), chicken Madras ($10.95) and, from the tandoori specialties cooked in the clay oven, seekh kebab ($10.50), described as a "mixture of minced lamb, onions and herbs, roasted on skewers."
Literally, "thali" means metal dish, and what a mass of metal! -- five stainless-steel cups on a stainless-steel tray. In the cups were 1) squares of homemade cheese, like firm tofu, stirred into a gently spiced, pureed spinach; 2) a mix of carrots, onion, green beans, peas and green pepper bound with spiced tomato; 3) a soothing deep-brown potage of dals, including lentils, kidney beans and what looked like small dark BBs; 4) a cleansing combination of yogurt, cucumber, tomato and spice; 5) a dessert of cake shaped like a pingpong ball, soaked in sugar syrup and spiced with a cooked whole cardamom pod. In addition, there was a puff of puri, or deep-fried bread, a spiced cracker sheet and a potato-and-pea samosa -- in sum, a generous quantity of food for $12!
Though the menu said chicken Madras was "highly spiced," we found it chokingly hot and yet oddly, superficially so, making me wonder whether the heat had been added at the end. We liked the poultry's having been prepared to Western preferences for chicken that is moist and succulent, not dry.
We also very much liked the four 4-inch long, juicy, spicy kebabs of minced lamb, which came with a gorgeous, sizzling mass of onions, partly charred by the grill. Such onions would make a marvelous side dish. All three entrees came with an ample serving of bright-orange basmati rice.
Akbar served pleasing versions of Indian standard desserts. Rasmalai ($2.25) consisted of two pistachio-dust- sprinkled pillows of homemade cheese in a slightly viscous cream; kulfi ($2.50) was a richly milky ice cream, light on rose water. *
Akbar, 3541 Brenbrook Drive at Liberty Road, 655-1600
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Sundays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m.
Features: Indian cooking
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes