Pictured is the Thali appetizer at Indigma. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Indigma is back. Tony Chemmanoor's boutique Indian restaurant was one of the casualties of the fire that swept through Mount Vernon's Park Plaza building in December.
Three seasons later, Indigma has materialized in the pretty townhouse on the corner of Charles and Madison street. That's right across the street from the old place. Typical Baltimore.
The idea is that Chemmanoor will move Indigma back to the Park Plaza when its renovation is complete, sometime next spring or summer.
However, the new home looks anything but temporary. Working with Ted Pearson of Rita St. Clair Associates, Chemmanoor has restored to these rooms the grace that diners remember from the old Tony Cheng's days. Grace looks different in 2011, though. Relaxing burgundies are out. Uplifting exuberant eggplants, pinks and persimmons are in.
When we visited, our fellow diners looked delighted to be dining in a formally set dining room, with music set at a hush, just like old times.
Me, I was tense and unhappy, the way I get when I feel uncertain, or confused. And I know why I felt that way.
It was the menu that did me in. Indigma, when it was at Park Plaza, operated with the kind of concise and controlled menu we associate now with contemporary dining. Before you've arrived, the restaurant has made some decisions for you. That's how it should be. The menu at 802 N. Charles is both mammoth and confusing, although it begins reasonably enough, with a manageable and coherent section of small plates, soups, salads and breads.
You can't choose badly at the beginning, when Indigma introduces its dynamic presentations and clean, fresh flavors. I especially loved the light and savory asparagus pakoras, fried light and crispy, and spiked with a ginger-carrot chutney. And I enjoyed, too, an appetizer of seekh kabob, which are cylinders of minced lamb, garlic and ginger, served simply, with an arousing and lovely mint sauce. And Himalayan mamos, steamed dumplings served with a deliciously tart yogurt sauce, make for an ideal vegetarian appetizer.
But then there's a rush of menu sections: Land, Sea, Chef's Specials, Indo-Chinese, Thali, Dumpukt, Grill, Earth, South Indian Specialties and Vegan & Gluten Free. The menu furthermore gives equal weight to all the menu items, which begin to blur together. Ordering sensibly, even with the valiant assistance of a concerned waiter, was an effort. Choosing a meal turned into actual work.
Having too many choices can be a bad thing, not only for the diner, but for the restaurant, too. At the very last second, we selected an entree from the Indo-Chinese section, which turned out to be misstep. Chili chicken had some of the peppery fire the menu promised, but the menu neglected to mention the dish's abundance of green and red bell peppers, which were the last thing in the world I wanted to see at Indigma. This dish was routine, as was the Indigma Samudra, a Chef's Specialty, which turned out to be exactly the kind of bland, and expensive, seafood medley that chefs create for picky eaters.
Choosing unwisely hurts doubly when you get glimpses of what could have been. The Murgh Tandoori, chosen from the Grill section, was some the best tandoor chicken I've ever had, each liberally spiced piece of juicy chicken bursting with roasted, peppery flavor.
The Balti paneer, a saute of Indian-style cheese, is a note-perfect vegetarian entree, an ideal balance of bright flavors, lightness and good nutrition. Another vegetable entree, the Navrathan Karma, was less interesting by comparison, a quiet, creamy mix of vegetables.
What did we miss out on, then? Plenty, it turns out, and it was only later, looking at the menu online, that I noticed it included dhosa (in the South Indian Specialties) along with a good dozen other dishes I know I would have enjoyed more than the chili chicken, the Indigma Samudra and the Navrathan Karma. I can't even tell you exactly how I ended up with them in the first place. I panicked.
There are fragrant paths to wander at Indigma, but you'll have to advance carefully. Learn from my experience. Spend some time looking at the menu online before you go. Or go for the grand buffet at lunch, when an abundance of choice is what you're expecting.
Where: 802 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon
Contact: 443-449-6483, http://www.indigmarestaurant.com
Hours: Open for dinner and grand buffet lunch Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$10; entrees, $9-$22
Atmosphere: ✭✭ 1/2
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]