New MemSahib is worth a trip to Lexington Market

Indian restaurant hopes for the theater crowd

Eats: dining reviews, Table Talk

April 01, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Until recently, a sit-down meal at Lexington Market meant gobbling a Faidley's crab cake while perched on a tiny stool near the famous vendor.

But recently, MemSahib began offering sit-down dinners. This is a bold move for the Indian restaurant. I love Indian food and I love Lexington Market, but luring customers to the historic market after it closes at 6 p.m. is clearly an uphill battle. However, after enjoying a lovely dinner there, I sincerely hope it succeeds.

MemSahib opened in Lexington Market in mid-2003, and for its first few months, it was open only for lunch, with a $7.95 buffet that gives patrons an assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, plus breads and desserts. Harried lunch crowds can also fill a foam take-out container if they don't have time to sit and eat.

This was a logical fit for the market, which serves a dizzying array of prepared foods from all corners of the globe. MemSahib still serves its buffet lunch, but about a month ago it deviated from the Lexington Market norm by opening for dinner.

Owner and chef Ron Tuli is betting that the newly renovated Hippodrome will bring dinner business to his restaurant. Tuli's parents own the MemSahib in Rockville, which serves a six-course meal complete with belly dancers for entertainment. But in Baltimore, the emphasis is on serving the food quickly, so patrons can eat before the show, he said.

He's advertising in Playbill, but since an earlier plan to stay open for the after-theater crowd was soon nixed, it may take a while for patrons to get in the habit of eating at MemSahib before a show.

On a recent Sunday night, my friends and I were the only ones in the restaurant. We parked in an adjacent lot and felt perfectly safe walking into the restaurant, even with the rest of the market closed, as it is on Sundays.

There was the risk that we would be ignored while the underworked servers chatted in the back. Instead, we were treated like royalty. Our water glasses were constantly refilled, and our server made the extra effort by bringing out our naan one at a time so the breads were still warm and puffy from the clay oven. At the end of the meal, she brought us an extra chai tea with our rice pudding because she thought I'd like it.

The restaurant itself is almost elegant, with soaring architecture, white tablecloths, candles and, of course, a soundtrack of soothing Indian music. The menu has fewer than 20 entrees, plus a few appetizers, breads and desserts.

Most dishes were bolder than the norm at local Indian restaurants, spicy enough to be truly interesting. A creamy made-on-the-spot mango lassi cut the heat. MemSahib also has a full liquor license for patrons who prefer a tall Taj Mahal or more potent beverage.

The food arrived as soon as it was prepared, giving everything an extra edge of freshness. A vegetable samosa appetizer right out of the fryer was still crisp on the outside, and the tender cardamom-spiked potato mixture inside was steaming. An exceptionally flavorful and tender version of tandoori chicken was served on skewers as an appetizer.

Entrees were served with small plates of vegetable-flecked basmati rice. Lamb curry featured tender chunks of meat in a deliciously savory brown sauce, while shrimp masala swam with tender broccoli in a slightly sweeter red sauce. Nearly half the menu is vegetarian. The two vegetarian items we tried, curried chickpeas and palak paneer, a sort of creamed spinach with potato chunks, both delivered a satisfying blast of heat but weren't so spicy as to be painful.

The only dessert was rice pudding, which was less sweet and more complex than usual, thanks to the addition of rose water, pistachios and cashews. We washed it down with creamy chai tea and hoped that MemSahib finds enough patrons to remain a dinner option for Baltimore.

MemSahib

Where: 400 W. Lexington St., Lexington Market

Call: 410-576-7777

Open: Lunch on Monday, lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday, dinner Saturday and Sunday

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers, $3-$7, entrees $8-$12

Food: *** 1/2

Service: *** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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