Favoring Curry

Staying Ahead of the Curve at Sarovar

Sarovar Indian Cuisine

8440 Burnet Rd., Ste. 100, 454-8636
Daily, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm

Sarovar Indian Cuisine

photograph by John Anderson

All things considered, it's amazing that America's restaurant trendwatchers haven't trained their culinary sights on Indian cuisine. When you get down to it, the Near East's edible traditions combine nearly all the elements that have catapulted other foreign cuisines into mainstream America's 15-minute spotlight.

The multifaceted cuisine of the Asian subcontinent includes exotic spice combinations for fans of Thai food, plenty of searing heat for pepper addicts, sampler portions for folks partial to Spanish tapas, and a wide range of hearty vegetarian and low-fat dishes for the obsessively health conscious. Culinary influences from Mongolia to Europe. Bread and rice. Curries of every color and intensity level. Eating with your hands, for god's sake! Who could ask for more?

But despite its overwhelming potential for mass appeal, Indian food hasn't skyrocketed in popularity in quite the way that its counterparts from provincial China, the Pacific Rim, and certain Mediterranean regions have. Like a local band that just can't generate the buzz for a major label contract, Indian food seems destined to be the unsigned garage band of global cuisine.

However, a new arrival on the local scene may help the cause considerably, providing Austin's more restless palates with a wide range of new frontiers.

Since opening late last December, Sarovar Indian Cuisine has gotten off to a strong start. Ambitously embracing specialties from both northern and southern India, Sarovar showcases an almost overwhelmingly diverse menu (over 200 dishes) without compromising quality.

Sarovar's dinner menu, which weighs in at over 20 pages, directly reflects the almost insane complexity of the Indian cuisine in its number of offerings alone. Though logically light on beef and pork dishes, the menu features more than 20 different chicken dishes and a sizable array of lamb-based entrees (think of it as "the other red meat"). Vegetarians will be pleased to find upward of 40 meatless options.

The primary challenge at dinner is wading through the dense columns of Hindi text, since only about 30% of the dishes are accompanied by English translations. This can be a problem for uninitiated diners who can't tell their saag (spinach) from a hole in the dal (dried lentil), but Samovar's waitstaff can usually answer questions about specific dishes or provide recommendations based on personal taste. This may actually be the preferred method, since spices and textures vary widely from dish to dish, and the thumbnail descriptions often only list the primary ingredients. This learning process is simplified at the daily lunch buffet ($6.95), where curious eaters can associate specific dishes with names more directly. (But more on that later....)

During a recent evening visit, our always-eager dining party passed up the appetizer course in favor of ordering main dishes in traditional dinner style. (Any entree can be supplemented by a five-course complement of small steel bowls - each filled with a different soup, curry, sauce, salad - along with a choice of three breads and a small dessert. Total extra charge: a mind-numbing three dollars.) The array of four-bite dishes ran the gamut in terms of texture and spice - ranging from a savory and soothing yogurt-based raita to a more assertive mixed-vegetable curry - and allowed each diner to mix taste and sensory sensations from one mouthful to the next. And for a ballpark expense of $11-15, it's also a great deal for the price.

Sarovar's entrees did an exemplary job of highlighting the delicate interplay of spices common to the Indian kitchen. The Lamb Vindaloo ($10.95 à la carte/$13.95 dinner), a chunky meat-and-potato stew, balanced the dish's chile pepper burn with pleasing layers of other pungent spices (most notably garlic, sweetish cinnamon, and an earthy dose of cumin). Though notorious in Indian circles for its relentless heat (the menu lists the dish in bright red ink), our version must have been toned down for beginners. Habanero fans looking for a challenge may request more fire, and then proceed at their own risk.

The Vegetable Kofta ("Meatball") Curry ($7.95/$10.95) demonstrates the possibilities of meatless cooking that could convert the most flavor-conscious omnivore within a few bites. Crisp, substantial morsels of onion, mixed vegetables, and chickpea flour are served in an aromatic tomato-based curry gravy dotted with dried peppers, whole cardamom pods, and generous amounts of cinnamon and clove. Even though our group generally feels comfortable reaching across plates for a sample, the Kofta inspired tightened borders and the occasional skirmish. Once you get a whiff, it's tough to turn back.

The final selection, the Tandoori Mixed Grill ($12.95/$15.95), arrived with a flourish more commonly associated with the late Eighties Fajita Revolution. A generous mound of quick-grilled meats (lamb, chicken, fish, ground lamb kabob, and a few shrimp) emerged from the kitchen sizzling on an iron platter. Traditional tandoori cooking involves cooking skewered meats in a super-heated clay oven (the tandoor), which maintains temperatures well above 500 degrees. Sealed by the tandoor's intense heat, the meats (glowing bright red from the traditional marinade of yogurt, lemon, spices, and food coloring) each maintained a perfectly moist interior despite their pleasantly crisp outer layers. Dark meat chicken kept its flavor and juicy texture while squares of tender lamb approximated perfectly smoked brisket. The only real casualty seemed to be the shrimp, which were overcooked and mealy, probably because of their placement on top of the sizzling platter. (There's just so much heat a crustacean can take.)

After making our way through a veritable mountain of food - the entrees, most of the tiny side dishes, and baskets of bread (soft tandoor-baked naan, puffy fried poori, and paratha, India's flaky answer to the whole-wheat tortilla), our now-sated trio kicked back to enjoy the atmosphere - a side benefit of Sarovar's strip mall location. The peaceful room, decorated with teak dividers and Himalayan murals on pale blue walls, is a far cry from its previous tenant - the gaudy, faux-Fifties train wreck of the now-defunct Hudson's Grill. (No more carhop motif, no more Hard Rock Caddy crashing through bright pink walls.) The new owners deserve induction into the Strip Mall Interior Reclamation Hall of Fame not so much for what they've done, but what they've undone.

For those interested in an Indian sampler approach, Sarovar's daily lunch buffet provides a serve-yourself crash course in the cuisine's more common dishes. The buffet (which runs from 11am-2:30pm) sports a deep selection of entrees - with vegetarian dishes thoughtfully separated into a separate section - in addition to chutneys, simple desserts, and the obligatory (if a bit anemic) green salad bar. Standouts from the lunch offerings include a darkly rich lamb curry (similar to mole in consistency and spicy complexity), steaming tandoori chicken, and a strikingly addictive cauliflower-chile pickle. As you'd expect from a lunch buffet, some of the fried dishes (such as the vegetable pakora) don't fare so well on the steam tables, but considering the buffet's many options, it's easy to eat around the marginal dishes.

So as Thai requirements relax and the hype for "New American Fusion Food" starts to drop off, we might start looking to Indian food for the "next big thing." Looks like Sarovar got here just in time....

India Cuisine

1011 Reinli, 454-2228
Daily, 11am-2:30pm

I've never been too big on all-you-can-eat buffets, mainly because the big chafing dishes of glazed-over food that are so often their main attraction don't strike me as appetizing and partly because the economics of buffets - huge quantities of food at ridiculously low prices - give me doubts about the quality of what I'm consuming. To me, the "you get what you pay for" maxim applies in particular when it comes all-you-can-eat buffets.

That said, I've found a lunch buffet in town that has effectively seduced me. For $5.99, reasonably sized vats of well-prepared, spice-laden delicacies such as Saag Paneer, Aloo Tikka Masala, Dal Punjabi, Aloo Gobhi, Chicken Korma, and Chicken Tandoori entice you back to the food bar again and again. Soup, salad, and an assortment of Indian flatbreads - Papadams and Naans among them - are also there for the taking as are cooling condiments such as Raita and Mango Chutney. This smorgasbord awaits at India Cuisine, a relative newcomer to the crowded I-35 corridor around the airport.

In major cities across the U.S., the food of India has taken the spotlight of late. It's become the newest darling of the fusion cuisine chefs, and spices such as cardamom, cumin, and coriander now boldly lace traditional European and American preparations, at times to their advantage and at others to their detriment. At India Cuisine, however, the food is pure India without the fluff. Vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike will find their nirvana in the restaurant's straightforward, homestyle cooking.

Vegetable curries such as the Saag Paneer, a creamy, slightly spicy spinach creation dotted with bits of tomatoes and onions and thickened with chunks of a tart, salty cheese; Aloo Tikka Masala, a hearty stew of potatoes, tomatoes, and onions in a creamy tomato-based sauce spiked with the detectable flavor of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, and nutmeg; Dal Punjabi, a winning combination of lentils and tomatoes seasoned by onion, ginger, and garlic and earthy spices, and Aloo Gobhi, an aromatic preparation combining cauliflower and potatoes, are delightful. The Saag Paneer and Dal Punjabi proved to be particularly habit-forming, and I confidently strode back to the buffet to get them time and again.

Among the meat dishes, the Chicken Korma - bite-sized bits of white meat afloat in a creamy curry sauce - was my favorite. It provided as much comfort as a mound of mashed potatoes and gravy might, with the added luxury of a sprinkling of nuts. The Tandoori Chicken was also good, remaining moist in part to its pronounced marinade that included ginger and garlic.

Folks who shy away from buffets for the same reasons I do will find comfort in my observation of India Cuisine's regular replenishment of the buffet. I could find no complaint to be made about the quality of the food that exited the kitchen, and food did so at regular intervals. When it comes to the economics of the deal, I'll make the simple claim that at $5.99, you get much more than you pay for at India Cuisine. -- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

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