Idon't know about you, but I'm a lot more excited about Indian cuisine since I discovered that actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, the Modigliani-faced star of the TV series Ghost Whisperer, is simply mad for it. "My new pig-out food is Indian food," the skinny little actress has been quoted as saying. "I eat Indian food, like, three times a week."
I don't eat Indian food, like, three times a month, though I'm very fond of it. The good news is that if I wanted to eat Indian food as often as Hewitt, the metro now has plenty of excellent restaurants serving the distinctively spicy cuisine. As I've noted in this space before, cookbook author Sharda Gopal insists that Indian food isn't just good-tasting but also is full of vim and vigor. "Indians are almost intuitively aware of the medicinal properties of the herbs and spices they use to flavor their food," she writes, "and they eat not just for sheer enjoyment and to stay alive, but to keep their bodies healthy and well-tuned."
Believe me, if I felt that Indian cuisine could tune up my lazy body, I'd be off and running to places like New Café Tandoor, Korma Sutra or Taj Mahal and stuffing samosas down my gullet faster than you could say Fardeen Khan. (He's the current Bollywood heartthrob and bad boy.) But I have weaknesses for the tandoor-baked breads and deep-fried pakoras that will forever keep me from having Fardeen's chiseled features and narrow hips. Not that I give a damn, I tell myself as I slather gooey mango chutney onto a wedge of puffy, buttery grilled paratha. I'm intuitively aware only of what tastes good.
That's what brings me to Paradise India, the two-month-old restaurant owned by Delhi native Yogi Gupta. Johnson County already has a bounty of fine Indian restaurants, but Yogi's strip-mall venue is a real contender — and not just because the food is fresh and wonderful. After all, not every Indian restaurant boasts a waiter like Drew Santana. On the night I dined with Bob, Linda and Richard, I told Santana that he looked familiar to me. Had he ever worked in a midtown restaurant?
"I look familiar," Santana said, puffing up his chest, "because I'm Ray Romano."
He did look a little like Romano, and he did tell a couple of snappy jokes during our dinner, but only after explaining that he's half-Indian, half-Italian and a little Spanish and Cuban with a few other ethnic bloodlines thrown in. First, though, he let our group sit in a corner of the dining room roped off with a yellow plastic chain.
"Is this the VIP area?" Linda asked.
"Yes," Santana said, "but anyone can sit there."
We sat down and, pretending to be VIPs, started barking out orders. We wanted a few starters, including chili pakoras, which I had never tasted. Gupta doesn't have a liquor license yet, so the closest thing to a cocktail was something called a "Paradise Tropical" — which Santana claimed to have invented. "It's mango, orange and cranberry juices," he explained, "and a shot of Sprite." No one else was brave enough to sample one, but I'm the Mocktail King, so I was all for it. I hesitated when the beverage arrived — it was the exact shade of fresh carrot juice — but it turned out to be a not-too-sweet, refreshing antidote when I bit into a fried jalapeño pepper in a chickpea-batter crust. The crunchy vegetable pakoras and fat samosas stuffed with minced lamb were tastier, and we could dress them up with spoonfuls of sweet, mahogany-colored tamarind sauce; soothing mint chutney; and a punchy, maraschino-red onion chutney. We used the same condiments with thin wedges of fresh-baked naan studded with garlic and griddle-fried (and slightly scorched) paratha — both plain and minty versions.
Unlike Jennifer Love Hewitt, Bob hasn't adopted Indian fare as his favorite pig-out food — though he is fond of butter chicken, a comforting staple of Indian-American restaurants. Not only does it sound familiar to Midwestern diners; the rich and creamy butter-and-tomato sauce is not too spicy or exotic.
Richard and Linda are more adventurous eaters, and they would have been just as happy if I'd ordered the chicken vindaloo or the shrimp biryani a few degrees hotter. "But the vindaloo is so good," Richard raved, "it makes my tongue dance."
Gupta offers more goat dishes than many local Indian restaurants, but I was confused to see both goat and lamb dishes described as mutton on his menu. "Isn't mutton always middle-aged lamb?" I asked Santana. He explained that although many local Indian restaurants frequently serve entrées made with lamb, it's not so easily found in India.
"We eat much more goat in India," Gupta told me later. "So we call goat meat mutton, too."
He also boasted that he uses farm-fresh Kansas goat in dishes such as mutton rogan josh, described as "simmered to perfect tenderness" on the menu. "You will love to have it," the menu promised.
And I did love having it. Tender goat and a cardamom-scented sauce made this an aromatic Punjabi stew. We all took turns tasting the goat, except for Bob, who felt that eating goat was just too "Granny Clampett" for his refined tastes.
Bob is never above a good buffet, but that shiny, long table — the dominant decorative fixture in the cream-and-burgundy dining room — stays empty during the dinner hour. Santana assured us, however, that Paradise India's lunch buffet was not to be missed. I returned one Sunday afternoon with Franklin, Addison and Debbie, who said she'd been craving good Indian food. In fact, she said, "I could eat it every day."
"Like Jennifer Love Hewitt!" I told her.
She looked at me blankly. "Who's that?"
We pushed our way into the VIP section of the dining room again — though I still had no idea why part of the long dining room was roped off. "It's for the lower castes," Addison theorized. "And that's why I insist on sitting there."
We took our seats and sipped chai from the do-it-yourself tea counter (Franklin refused to drink out of Styrofoam, so our server brought us four china cups) until we felt energized enough to hit the buffet.
To call it well-stocked would be an understatement. We all turned up our noses at the "salad bar," which included a container of plain mayonnaise boasting a little label describing it as "dressing" — that was a little too Granny Clampett for me. But the real Indian dishes were sensational: piles of yogurt-marinated tandoori chicken; soft chickpea kadhi pakora dumplings in a silky, garlicky yogurt sauce; a luscious mound of shahjahani biryani peppered with pieces of spiced lamb, chicken and shrimp; a discreetly spiced Malabar fish; and lots of freshly baked naan with soothing coconut chutney or a ferociously hot pickle relish made with chopped mango, mustard, chili and fenugreek. Legend has it that this tongue-burning condiment has all kinds of positive health benefits, such as increasing hair growth, curing stomach ulcers and promoting weight loss.
Hey, maybe I do need to eat Indian food more often. Like, maybe three times a week?
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