BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
When you notice India Pavilion’s murals, some of which depict couples in sexually suggestive poses, it may come as a surprise that your reaction is pity. How pale and wan sexual ecstasy seems, compared to bites of the moistest tandoori chicken breast ever, so thoroughly penetrated by its yogurt marinade!
Cambridge’s oldest Indian restaurant, India Pavilion has operated since 1979; dozens of Indian restaurants have opened in Cambridge since then. Most such restaurants retain the character of their neighborhood – the Bombay Club in Harvard Square has obstreperous signage and lackluster food; Tanjore, also in Harvard Square, charges double the price of most Indian restaurants; Inman Square’s Punjabi Dhaba is cramped and high-volume, fitting the busy intersection it calls home. India Pavilion is as colorful as its Central Square location, although the effect created by the murals is not quite the same as that of the emergency vehicle lights that shine into the restaurant once or twice per meal as the nearby fire and police stations buzz with activity. It is also one of the best Indian restaurants in Cambridge.
India Pavilion’s food is exceptionally well spiced. The onion chutney served with the crunchy cracker-like pampadum that starts every meal here is much hotter and more robust than the watery versions served elsewhere, but the intense spice fades away quickly. This spicing manifests itself in more subtle ways, as well – the creamy tomato broth of the masala dishes is just rich and hearty enough, yet very sweet in a manner that does not cloy. The discernable spice savvy makes it unsurprising that the restaurant is affiliated with the nearby River Street Indian spice shop: India Pavilion’s disposable placemats contain coupons for 10% discounts at the spice store. The always-useful placemat also contains fun facts about Indian food (“Most spices are not hot, but are used as aromatics, coloring agents, souring agents, thickeners, or digestive aids”) as well as handy recipes – you can apparently make a Lassi by combining sugar, water, ground cardamom pods, plain yogurt, buttermilk and rosewater.
The food here is undistinguished for its variety – it’s mostly standard Northern Indian fare – but each dish is of much better quality than the Cambridge Indian restaurant standard. The best way to experience the food is through a set meal; my favorite is the $25.95 Combination Meal, which feeds two handily with two bowls of soup; half a tandoori chicken; a ground lamb kebab; an order of bainghan bartha, a mild, smoky dish of pulpy roasted eggplant studded with peas; shrimp masala; naan; two desserts and coffee. Pick the chicken soup, it combines a rich chicken stock broth with lots of small, delicious chicken fragments. The best desserts are the rasmalai, a cold homemade cheese in sweet milk, and the kulfi, a dense Indian pistachio ice cream. Otherwise, everything in the Combination Meal is pretty much excellent. The naan is a testament to the power of the tandoori oven’s inferno, and it manages to remain both dry and crisp at its surface, yet with just the right hint of a doughy interior. This is an effect almost never achieved even with pizza crust at dedicated pizza parlors outside of New York – if India Pavilion added pizza to the menu, it would be the best in the area.
One caveat when eating at India Pavilion is to avoid the weekends – the restaurant is strangely empty on weekday evenings, and as a result it crams as many people as possible in on Fridays and Saturdays to maintain economic viability. The waits for food on these days can stretch interminably; the kitchen seems completely unwilling to rush and compromise quality. On one Friday, the kitchen successfully pursued the strategy of delaying service until couples started to leave, thus reducing overall demand. Food comes out speedily and with excellent consistency at all other times, however.
Seafood dishes are a bit spottier than most: the fish masala is hobbled by less than perfectly fresh fish, and the fish pakora are fried chunks of disappointment – glorified fish sticks. Stick to traditional fare; meat, chicken and vegetarian dishes are uniformly excellent. After one bite of the just slightly sour homemade cheese blended with spinach in the saag paneer, you’ll never be able to eat another Cambridge version. If you’re looking to lose some weight by weaning yourself off Harvard Square Indian fare, there’s no better place to do it than India Pavilion.