Fusion before fusion was cool

October 11, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

INDIAN restaurants were doing fusion cuisine long before some foodie coined the phrase. Think about it: India is a country almost as big as Western Europe. In it, hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken, and at least four major religions are practiced. Its state boundaries were drawn largely along cultural lines.

Now that's diversity.

To experience a sample of India's culinary arts, go to Little Italy. No, that is not a misprint. India Rasoi ("Indian kitchen") is a welcome diversion in the land of pasta.

On my visit, the food was tasty, the service (provided by co-owner Jasvinder Khatkar) informative and punctual, and the atmosphere convivial, right down to the Indian music playing in the background. Last, but not least, Rasoi's menu includes six vegetarian appetizers and more than 12 vegetarian entrees.

Many of the dishes prepared at Rasoi are typical of those served in the Punjab region, which stretches west from northern India into central Pakistan. But the influences at work here have crept in from other parts of the world.

Take, for example, shahi murgh korma, a hefty portion of chicken pieces (mostly dark meat) cooked in korma sauce and served with basmati rice. Korma is a cooking term that is used throughout the Near East. What sets the Indian variety of korma apart from others is the use of cream, raisins and nuts; Rasoi uses almonds to add some crunch to the delicious, spicy, orange-colored sauce.

The navrattan curry featured a similar sauce, albeit one with a lot more fire power thanks to the curry (a south Indian specialty). Khatkar said that the word "navrattan" refers to the nine vegetables used in the dish: peas, carrots, potatoes, green peppers, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, string beans and broccoli. The lack of green peppers in the batch of lightly sauteed veggies we had was barely noticeable. In fact, we're happy to go back for a second attempt to get some.

In terms of sheer variety in an entree, it's tough to beat the vegetable thaali. Four reasonable servings of different dishes are served on a large, round platter, along with a dollop of excellent nutty-flavored saffron rice. We recognized only one item on the platter - a samosa, which was plump, fried and perfectly seasoned.

Of the other three dishes, we liked the daal, a mixture of five kinds of lentils, and the puri, thin wedges of whole-wheat, deep-fried bread. But we found the sweet offering - a small dumpling swimming in a light, sweet sauce flavored with honey, cloves and cardamom - a bit of a stretch for our Western palates.

Rasoi's appealing appetizers are meals in themselves. We loved the thick, yellow mulligatawny soup's lemony undertones and grainy texture; no lentil-based soup has ever tasted finer. The vegetable combo platter was also a pleaser, particularly the batter-fried vegetable pakora. And we enjoyed India Rasoi's pappadums, thin, cracker-like bread sprinkled with black pepper and then dipped either in a ruby-red, sweet tamarind sauce or a spicy green sauce.

We left the restaurant with a large cup of steaming chai tea, the perfect ending to a darn-close-to-perfect meal.

India Rasoi

411 S. High St.

410-385-4900

Open: For lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Prices: Appetizers $1.55 to $6.75; entrees $7.50 to $16.75

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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