I envied Reichl's travels as I sat in the cozy green-and-cream dining room of the relatively new Indian restaurant, Touch of Asia. It would have been so much easier to write about Indian cuisine -- even the kind served in a Johnson County strip mall -- if I could have persuaded the Pitch to send me off on a fact-gathering expedition to Kashmir. The answer: No deal.
Or, more to the point, no dal -- I wouldn't be able to gain any firsthand experience of that versatile staple of Indian cooking, made with dried beans and peas. Instead, I had to rely on my own experience eating in Indian restaurants throughout the United States. And I'm like most Midwestern diners who confront a menu at an Indian restaurant: I know what I like and I'm wary of everything else. That's because the food at Indian restaurants in the United States, according to Indian-born friends of mine, is uneven at best. Actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey agrees: "The sauces in such eating places inevitably have the same color, taste and consistency; the dishes come 'mild, medium or hot,' which is an indication that the food is not being cooked with the spices, as it should be, but that something is being ladled on. Appetizers are suggested not because Indians eat them but because it is felt that Americans cannot do without them."
I certainly could do without many of the greasy, fried and uninteresting appetizers at Touch of Asia. While most of the restaurant's appetizers are smaller versions of dinner choices, such as barbecued chicken tikka, the fried stuff goes awry. Take the mixed appetizer basket for two, which arrives topped with two paper-thin papadam (wafers of fried dal dough made with lots of crushed black pepper). On one visit, I took a friend from a small Kansas town whose palate wasn't exactly sophisticated, but his comments were priceless. Biting into one of the crispy, feathery wafers, he said, "Frito-Lay should really think of packaging these as a chip. They're better than the usual spicy kind." He was less entranced by the batter-coated vegetables and fried fritters tucked underneath. Two plump samosas were made with a whole wheat pastry wrapped around a bland mashed potato filling, while pakoras, fritters stuffed with onion or chopped broccoli, were nearly burnt. The pakoras were no better on a second visit -- and all the sweet, dark tamarind sauce or fresh, lemony mint chutney in the world could not mask the flavor of old cooking oil.
My friend Bob noted that the menu said they were "fried to golden perfection." They were -- and then some.
For a more interesting appetizer, a group of diners could order one of the dinners cooked in the white-hot tandoor clay oven. The Tandoori Mixed Grill, for instance, comes out sizzling-hot on a metal plate, a pile of sliced onions and peppers surrounding a combination of meats tinted a dazzling pink from a marinade of yogurt and spices. The tender breast of tandoori chicken is familiar -- it's a standard on most Indian buffets.
But Bob and I thought the shrimp were tough and chewy ("And not deveined!" he said, shuddering), but the seekh kabob -- ground lamb sausage flavored with cumin, ginger and coriander -- was tasty. And I loved the juicy cubed lamb.
That mixed grill helped us devour a couple of baskets of Touch of Asia's superb breads. We wrapped soft, yeasty nan (baked in the tandoor oven) around pieces of the barbecued meats and dipped them in the cooling mint chutney. Bob ordered the panir kulcha bread, lured by a description that said it was "filled with homemade cheese and spices." I think he expected something thick and chewy with melted, gooey cheese, and he seemed disappointed when the bread arrived crusty and golden but airy inside, lightly dappled with grated hard cheese and mild spices. I, however, remained a huge fan of puri, a fried, air-filled balloon of whole wheat dough (the same used for the crêpe-like chapati). True to form, it melted at first bite and was luscious with a spoonful of sweet mango chutney or a splash of cool raita (a sauce made with creamy yogurt, grated cucumber and just a hint of fresh mint).
We found that one of Touch of Asia's vegetarian dishes made for a lighter second act. Spooned over a mound of cooked white rice, navratan korma was a rich combination of fresh vegetables simmered in coconut cream sauce; also notable was the spicy bhindi masala (fresh okra sautéed with tomatoes, onions, cumin and coriander).
But for sheer elegance, nothing came close to Chicken Cashmere, an extraordinary dish of plump, tender breast pieces and golden raisins simmering in a creamy sauce that resonated with cinnamon and cardamom. The chicken curry, however, which was swimming in a meek, dark sauce, reminded me of Jaffrey's famous put-down: "The word 'curry' is as degrading to India's great cuisine as the term 'chop suey' was to China's" -- meaning that the word has become a catchall for any combination of spice blends. At Touch of Asia, the stewlike curry dishes may raise the body temperature slightly, but nothing like the fierce -- and delicious -- vindaloo dishes.
Vindaloo actually is a curry, made from a paste of chile peppers, ginger, mustard and vinegar. Touch of Asia's fine lamb vindaloo -- a spicy brew laden with fork-tender chunks of lamb -- comes out in a bubbling bowl, good for ladling over rice or, better yet, wrapping in a piece of warm chapati and dipping in a bit of raita. It heats up and cools down the taste buds all at once.
Touch of Asia serves traditional Indian desserts, including the cardamom- and pistachio-flavored kulfi ice cream (for the less adventurous, there's vanilla and chocolate), as well as the rose-flavored vermicelli "milk shake" called falooda and the light rice pudding known as kheer. But I was always too full from all that bread and chutney to complete my dinner on such a sweet note.
The service at Touch of Asia is hurried and not especially friendly, but it's attentive. And if the decor, with its sheer curtains and country-look wallpaper, does more to evoke Prairie Village than Bombay, so be it. If you want the real thing, start packing.