"How long have you been open?" Dan asked the harried young server who was rushing around the dining room filling water glasses. "Three months," he said, before stopping to explain that the restaurant had actually opened five months ago but had closed for a month and then reopened. I tried to ask why it had closed temporarily, but the server was the only one in the dining room and he whirled off again before we could order anything.
Dan laughed: "That was quick." Because we were just sitting there with the slick, spiral-bound, full-color, photo-illustrated menus in our hands, I got back to Dan's original observation: Yes, you do have to admire a restaurateur who opens a new place these days. But only if the restaurateur has a clue about what he's doing. And after a couple of meals at Chilli n Spice, I'm not so sure about Kumar and his manager, Saketh Balmoori. No matter how long the place has been in business, it's woefully understaffed in the dining room and the kitchen, and the little irritants are only magnified when you're hungry and tired, as most of us are in this economic climate.
The pretty, little storefront dining room is in a cookie-cutter Johnson County strip mall (there's an interesting Indian market next door), but it's designed with so many hard surfaces that sound ricochets all over the damn place. Add the piped-in satellite radio tuned to an Indian station (complete with jarringly loud commercials), and you have the least soothing Indian dining experience in the city. Servers are happy to explain the extensive menu of North Indian, South Indian and Indo-Chinese fare — if you can hear them over the din — but the kitchen is glacially slow, and what finally comes out of it is inconsistent.
All that being said, the place does have potential.
I first dined there on a damp, cold evening with Carol Ann, who was charmed by the spartan simplicity of the décor and by a menu that appeared to be filled with highly spiced dishes.
The traditional favorites are all there: the fried pakoras and samosas, butter chicken, tandoori-roasted meats, biryani rice dishes, even goat curry. I wasn't in the mood for batter-dipped vegetables that night, so we went straight for the soup course. The chilly night almost dictated the cream-of-tomato soup, the hot-and-sour concoction or one of the Manchow soups — named for Manchuria but apparently not a soup found in any traditional Chinese or Manchurian recipe collections. Though Carol and I ordered different soups, they were variations on a similar theme: egg drop. Instead of the spicy, gingery dark broth that I expected, I received a bowl of bland egg-drop soup with bits of fresh carrot and green beans. It was lovely and soothing but not so Manchow. Carol's hot-and-sour soup looked just like mine but had been fired up with some hot chiles or hot chili paste. She loved it; I thought it was just fair.
Our meals were somewhat better. Her ginger chicken, from the Indo-Chinese menu, and my Chilli n Spice special lamb were both served with little metal dishes of gummy rice scattered with cashews and green peas. But the lamb, extremely tender and juicy, had been cooked in a fragrant mahogany-colored curry — complicated and delicious. Carol's ginger chicken was blanketed in a thick, tomato-based sauce that wasn't as gingery as I would have liked, but it had some kick. Too late to arrive were the breads — butter naan and onion kulcha — that weren't nearly hot enough.
"We're very busy tonight," the server explained. Carol Ann looked around and saw three occupied tables. As if reading her mind, the server quickly added, "We had a very large carryout order, too."
Carol had a cup of coffee, which was already sweetened with milk and sugar before coming to the table, and a bowl of rice pudding for dessert. I sat back and listened to the radio show. Though I didn't understand a word, the voice patterns were familiar — just like many of the obnoxious shows on American satellite radio.
The music was even louder when I returned with Dan and Larry. The dining room was busier, and the kitchen was slower. It took nearly 30 minutes to get an assortment of pakoras and samosas and something called a "vegetable cutlet" that had a hot, crunchy exterior but was still frozen in the middle.
"The onion and mint chutneys are wonderful," Dan said as he spooned a little on pieces of feather-light papadam. "The pakoras, not so good."
I agreed, but because I was ravenous from waiting, I ate quite a few anyway. Once again, our meals were uneven: The curried goat was tender, not too bony and delicately seasoned, while Larry's "coastal chicken" in a punchy, amber cream sauce (a Sri Lankan recipe, we were told) was excellent. The vegetables in Dan's Chilli n Spice special vegetable dish were crisp and fresh, although he wished that the sauce had been hotter. "I thought because of the restaurant's name, everything would be hot," he said.
Assuming a dish will be hot because of a restaurant's name is one thing. Expecting it to be hot because you ordered it hot — as opposed to mild or medium — is quite another. Larry had told our server that he wanted his coastal chicken hot and he felt that it could have been much spicier. The rice, for this meal, was unadorned: plain, gummy white rice.
Then, without warning, our server brought out little dishes of neon-green tapioca pudding for Larry and Dan. Dan and I were put off by the vibrant color and wouldn't touch it, so Larry ate both bowls. "It's pistachio," he announced. "I think."
"It's very inexpensive," I said, looking down at the check.
"It's mediocre," Dan sniffed. "I love good Indian food, but this wasn't it."
Still, we admired the owners for trying to create an interesting new restaurant when other venues are closing. We'll admire them even more if they can focus on tightening their operation and keeping the place open.