There are moments when I really want my life to be a Bollywood movie. I want singing and dancing and spectacular costumes and Sushant Singh Rajput and Parineeti Chopra as my co-stars. I'm not exactly sure what I would be doing in this movie, but I know I'd get to wear sandals and an embroidered sherwani and sip a cold mango lassi and chew on a tandoori-baked drumstick.
If I were willing to live with just the cold drink and the vivid red chicken leg, I could stay in Kansas City, where plenty of Indian restaurants provide the essence of Mumbai or Bangalore without need of a passport. Some of these places are decorated with enough flourish to transport me for an hour, their murals or tapestries or gilded idols or elaborate wood carvings ready to be part of a big production number.
And then there's Moti Mahal. The two-month-old Indian restaurant is no one's idea of Bollywood. It's a lot closer to the In-A-Tub joint on the same stretch of Prairie View Road than it is to Jaipur, with a dreary interior and an exterior dominated by the neighboring Dirk's Sports Bar. No charm, in other words. But some of the food is really good.
The place makes some pretty terrific pakoras, for starters, and the Moti Mahal platter — all the deep-fried hits from the starter menu — is a satisfying bargain for diners who want the Indian equivalent of a Midwest saloon's array of deep-fried pepper poppers, onion rings and waffle fries. And why shouldn't the American passion for fried delicacies find a tasty companion in the ancient culture of the Indian subcontinent? Call it an onion ring or an onion bhaji, it's the same thing — though Moti Mahal's tangy, sticky tamarind chutney makes a much better dipping sauce.
Moti Mahal replaced a different Indian restaurant, Saffron, in this location ("Saffron could be a winner if the spice is right," November 6, 2012), and it was equally unattractive. But if the dishes listed on the Moti Mahal menu come on stronger now, it should be noted that this restaurant's owner, Jorabar "Jay" Shokar, is also a partner in the Westport location of Korma Sutra.
The food at both locations of Korma Sutra is very good, and the strapping young cook back in the Moti Mahal kitchen is trying very hard to adhere to that standard. But nothing I sampled here was very spicy. The dishes I tasted at what the menu calls "medium" intensity were as mild as Gerber's baby food; the "hot" versions didn't have me reaching for my water glass, either.
The traditional Tamil mulligatawny soup supposedly translates as "pepper water" and is typically well-seasoned. Here, it's a soothing, bland lentil concoction. And the chicken soup ("boneless chunks of white meat floating in a tasty broth," according to the menu) tastes vaguely rehydrated, with that chicken nearly microscopic.
Things get a good deal chunkier when you order from the entrée selection. Moti Mahal's cooks are generous with the lamb, chicken and goat tucked into the thick, creamy sauces in the korma, masala and vindaloo repertoire. And the globs of "vegetable patties" — kofta indicates a meatball, but the meatless version has the consistency of a marshmallow — hidden under a supple, creamy tomato-based sauce are handball-size.
There's a memorable chicken goa curry, blanketed in a fine tomato-and-coconut cream sauce, and I liked the saffron-scented biriyani dishes I tried, including the restaurant's signature version of the dish: a mix of rice, lamb, chicken, shrimp, steamed white fish and fresh vegetables. It's one of those dishes that never seems to shrink, no matter how many times you spoon yourself a serious portion. In fact, even as a leftover, it appears to multiply in the refrigerator.
I'm wary of Indian buffets these days (not every local restaurant is as meticulous at maintaining the steam tables as Moti Mahal is), but a friend dined with me one afternoon and made a dash for it. He found an impressive selection of meat and vegetarian dishes, served with lots of freshly baked naan and a complimentary mango lassi, and he thought it was a damn good deal. He filled up and polished off at least three or four plates piled with saag paneer, chicken tikka, chana aloo, and lamb curry.
The breads at Moti Mahal don't stack up well against some of this restaurant's rival venues (including the far more glamorous and expensive Swagat, just across the street in the Zona Rosa complex). The naan here is greasy and far too chewy.
The desserts, however, are sweet and pretty — even when you don't want them. On each of my visits, I was presented with a cube of mango kulfi and a tiny dish of milky rice pudding.
I like rice pudding on occasion, but Moti Mahal needed something that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I was in my car and driving away before the answer came to me: a sublime Bollywood touch of chocolate-mousse cake.
That's how it is in my movie, anyway.