The place may still be pretty in pink, but the fire has gone out at India Oven. Let me be less metaphorical: there’s heat in some of the food, but something has happened to its soul. We could start with a humble flatbread.
Humble but hardly without interest, the aloo partha, a whole wheat flatbread layered with spiced potato and peas, normally provides a deeply satisfying experience, for all its simplicity. Ours was flat, and more than physically. The same felt true of the samosa, also stuffed with potato and peas, and ordered as a part of an assorted Indian hors d’oeuvres.
The rest of the appetizer platter failed to impress: chicken tikka from the tandoori oven was dry and nearly tasteless, ground lamb kebabs exhibited more life but not much, and the decent vegetable pakoras, made from shredded rather than sliced vegetables, nevertheless called for the fiery mint chutney that saved the meal. An order of paneer pakoras (cubes of house-made cheese dipped in garbanzo batter and fried), for all its lack of presumption, made for the standout starter — once anointed with the miracle-working mint or tamarind.
At $13.95, the tandoori-cooked lamb tikka kabab is among IO’s most expensive entrées; excluding the market-price rack of lamb, only the tandoori prawns, at $14.95, are more. We expected more of it. The marinated lamb, in concert with some onions and tomato, didn’t offend, but neither did it dazzle. Where’s Bollywood when you need it most?
There was a little more of the jangle and color we’ve all experienced in Indian cooking with an order of dal turka, yellow lentils “with ginger, garlic and spices;” the spice level was at least noticeable. But the salient impression was one of stridency, with green chiles shouting out the earthier ginger and garlic. Granted, the very good peas pilau that came with the lentils helped make the total package mellower, but rice’s role is to complement the main event, not distract attention from it.
Yet there’s good news at last, and it’s called prawns vindaloo. (I almost used an exclamation point, but caught myself just in time.) The secret to ordering at India Oven may be to look for this spicy curry with roots in Portuguese-influenced Goa. There was heat, but heat wasn’t the only noticeable note — there were harmonies present. And almost as many shrimp as pieces of potato, thus coming close to justifying the $13.95 price tag. The spicy shrimp also made a nice match with a glass of gewürztraminer, proving once again that a little spice and sweetness in a wine plays well with fire in a dish. (There being more wines than one might expect on offer, we also ordered a glass of syrah; it actually helped perk up the lamb dish. Just not enough.)
Service to this point had been brusque, though reasonably quick, with our waiter making a show of not having to write down anything when taking the order. (Turns out he forgot to bring the Indian pickle and an order of chutney — though to be fair, we also forgot we’d ordered them.) This oversight apparently cued him to disappear, which he also performed with great efficiency. Never mind, I’m not a huge fan of Indian desserts anyway — with the exception of kulfi, the pistachio ice cream. And besides, we had saved much of an order of Kashmiri naan, the leavened flatbread layered with cashews, pistachios, raisins and cherries. Perfectly fine as dessert — and as a parting shot. •
The Skinny: An established northern Indian eatery with buffet service for lunch and a nice wine selection for dinner.
Best Bets: Paneer pakora, prawns vindaloo
Hours: Lunch Buffet: 11am-2:30pm Mon-Sat; 11:30am-3pm Sun, Dinner: 5pm-10pm Sun-Thu; 5pm-10:30pm Fri-Sat
Prices: Entrées: $7.95-$14.95