Good Indian Food By Any Name


January 03, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Banjara, 1017 S. Charles St., (410) 962-1554. Open every day for lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair accessible: no.

India Grill in Federal Hill, one of my favorite Indian restaurants in Baltimore, closed recently, only a couple of years after it opened. The good news is that another Indian restaurant, Banjara, has taken over the space.

When I heard that the new owner was a Mr. Singh, I thought the restaurant might simply have changed its name and decor. (The former owner was Mandeep Singh.) But no. Banjara's owner is Kehar Singh, no relation; there's a new chef; and the menu is substantially different. You'll find, though, that the chef is every bit as talented as the India Grill's was, prices are comparably low, and the new owner and staff are extremely personable.

Like its predecessor, Banjara doesn't look like a typical Indiarestaurant. Banjara's color scheme is different -- gold rather than dusty rose -- but there are still cafe curtains in the windows, a pressed tin ceiling, a profusion of mirrors and very little in the way of Indian art. (Color photographs of India for the walls, according to Mr. Singh, are on order.) The flowery tablecloths are new, as are the fresh flowers on each table.

The savory aromas wafting in from the kitchen leave you in no doubt about the cuisine, though. Mr. Singh feels that the food is more authentic than at other Indian restaurants in the area, less altered to accommodate American tastes. "The way we eat it," he says.

For the most part, it's the cuisine of the Punjab region of northern India, with its complex flavors and less fire for the sake of fire. More spices are used, in other words, but dishes aren't as spicy-hot. Only the seafood dishes on the menu are from the south.

The menu holds few surprises for anyone at all familiar with Indian cuisine. The tandoori specialties, curries, biryanis and combination platters are all here. If you aren't knowledgeable about Indian food, a good place to start is one of these combinations, the Special Banjara Dinner. You get a choice of soup or samosa (a pastry turnover filled with vegetables or meat), tandoori chicken, a lamb dish, a vegetable combination, bread, rice and raita, a yogurt dish.

The unusually succulent, slightly charred chicken and the vegetables, cooked in a creamy sauce fragrant with spices, are both worth ordering on their own. Only the lamb dish seemed a bit skimpy, although its creamed spinach sauce was a standout. Start with the smooth, fiery lentil soup rather than the just-OK vegetable samosas (although they're worth ordering for the accompaniments: a cauliflower pickle, spicy coriander-yogurt chutney and a slightly sweet dipping sauce).

The naan (unleavened bread cooked in the tandoor oven) is as good a version as I've had -- lightly brushed with oil, it's soft and hot with little charred bubbles. It was so good that even the puri (deep-fried puffed bread) got ignored.

An Indian meal should be made up of a variety of dishes; that'why the combinations are a good choice if you don't have lots of people ordering lots of different food. Vegetarian Thali includes a samosa, two vegetables, dal (lentils), raita, rice, puri, pappad (a crisp bread) and gulab jamun (excessive sweetness condensed into a little ball, typical of Indian desserts).

Banjara's dal is made up of five different kinds of lentils that retain their individual character; it's as good as anything on the menu. Creamy spinach and a mixture of potatoes and peas are vegetarian show-stoppers. But I'm not wild about the way everything in this combination dinner is served at once, appetizer through dessert, in little metal bowls on a metal tray.

As for the seafood, which comes from the nearby Cross Street Market, Banjara has a crab dish and a fish curry, but we ended up getting jingha karari, large shrimp in a thick, savory sauce flavored with garlic, coriander and ginger among other spices. Definitely worth ordering. Also worth trying: onion bhajia, a starter that looks like fried oysters but turns out to be onions in a crisp, spicy chick-pea batter.

Our meal at Banjara didn't involve any culinary trailblazing, buwe enjoyed just about all of it. Particularly impressive are the thoughtful service and the attention even the owner pays to his customers' needs -- I don't know if the latter is a function of the restaurant's newness, but I hope it continues.

Next: Just desserts

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