BY LAM HO
In England, a country where curry has surpassed fish and chips as the national chow icon, “takeaway” Indian restaurants entice with their bold, greasy flavors at literally every corner. Whether a European anti-corporate, cultural addiction response to the Starbucks phenomenon or a counterpart to Chinese-American entrepreneurship, they are wonderful! They inexpensively offer a dependable, tasty-and spicy-reprieve from bad, bland British food. Conversely, Indian restaurants that successfully transcend the takeaway balance of robust home-cooking style with fast-food simplicity and greasiness are as common as reservations at Thomas Keller’s two über-restaurants-which yours truly is still desperate to achieve. Locally, I’ve had fine cuisine at India in downtown Providence, unfortunately neither consistently nor at its sister location.
Thus, after an exhausting week during which I screwed up my first legal memo, it was with both unbridled excitement and skepticism that I tried Cafe of India last Friday. It was near the A.R.T., where I was seeing Carmen, and had recommendations as an “upscale” Indian restaurant. Zagat had given it an excellent review, promising a “fine dining” experience. Unfortunately, like the ham-in-every-way Don Jose who spoiled the second half of an otherwise powerful chamber version of Bizet’s opera, Cafe of India ruined my nostalgia for those exceptional London restaurants to which I fled during my frequent escapes from Oxford. It provoked every irritation I have as a food and dining-out lover, served up mediocrity and worse, and then charged me $80 (for two without alcohol or dessert).
Let’s begin with the all-important food-I’m personally willing to forgive anything, from rude service to exorbitant prices, for divine food (see Le Cirque here, which has the best fish soup I’ve ever had alongside the absolute worst, $100+/person, shoved away next to the kitchen condescension I’ve ever received). The food at Cafe of India ranged from okay to completely BLAH to swimming in so much grease I couldn’t taste anything else. The qualities that distinguish fine Indian cuisine are a controlled blending of delicate preparation and exotic spices, creative interpretation that maintains traditional pungent flavors, fresh ingredients, and certainly the absence of grease. The only superlative characteristic about Cafe of India was its determined failure in each criterion.
I started off with some vegetable samosas and Mulligatawny soup that I wager had been microwave-reheated; in fact, I have had Sainsbury’s packaged samosas and soup which tasted better. The samosa pastry was soggy from both grease and likely microwaving, while the filling tasted only of lumpy potatoes and more grease. The soup was less offensive in that I couldn’t taste anything but lentils; the characteristic zesty herbs and spiciness were definitely not present. A brief mention here of the sloppy presentation on the samosa plate: a crowded mismatch of a pink flower, pieces of cabbage chopped five times too large for elegance, and a pool of mint sauce.
My entrees included saag paneer, a personal favorite consisting of cubes of paneer cheese and spinach, and baigan bhartha, baked, mashed, and sautéed eggplant. I have saag paneer 2 out of 5 times I eat Indian. This time, it was among the worst I have ever had, inferior to many takeaway renderings that cost far less than the $13 I was paying, without rice. Ideally, saag paneer offers an intricate union of the slight tang of paneer with brasher, spiced spinach. Cafe of India’s version was a greasy, gloppy mess that alternated between tasting like plastic and grease. Do you sense a recurrent culinary theme? However, the baigan bhartha was, shockingly by this point, decent. It was hardly stellar, but I actually enjoyed eating it; it was flavorful and zangy but not greasy. Unfortunately, my friend’s keema mutter (minced lamb with spices and vegetables) was of the saag paneer preparation. While it avoided the thematic greasiness, it also lacked any flavor, and more damningly, the poor quality lamb was dry and tough.
As to the restaurant’s superficial pretensions of an upscale, fine-dining experience, the brigade of East Asian waiters who knew little about the food immediately dispelled them; one wonders if there were Chinese cooks in the kitchen too. I assume that the waiters’ uselessness at explaining the food and understanding our requests, as well as their inattentiveness, were an effort at the “discreet service” associated with fine restaurants. The too large dining room seemed more befitting for packing in customers than creating an intimate, relaxing space. Instead of being sophisticatedly but dimly lit, the restaurant was simply too dark-Friendly’s in a cavern. And perhaps this is pure snobbery, but there is something frightfully tasteless about booth seating and touristy kitsch “art and artifacts” that screams cheap, and I’m adamant that the fruit fly that died on my appetizer plate was yelling anything but upscale. Ultimately, as much as I wanted to give a complete review, I simply could not spare additional money or digestion to suffer dessert. Instead, I left in contempt of a restaurant trying desperately to be more than something completely respectable and, in its failure, becoming something much less. Serving food no better than a common takeaway, with just as much grease and not as much flavor, the only aspect that Cafe of India has in keeping with its fine cuisine marketing is its outrageous prices. Unfortunately for them and my poor tastebuds, charging more doesn’t mean your food tastes any better.
Info: Cafe of India 52 Brattle St Cambridge, MA 02138-3731 (617) 661-0683
Rating: In support of the Solomon Protest, Café of India gets… a pink soldier out of 4. The food was worth one pink soldier, but the “upscale” pretensions knock 1/2 away.
Epicurean Doctrine of the Week: High prices alone do not a fine restaurant make (and, don’t trust random people whose culinary tastes are completely unknown, and most likely atrocious…or guides like Zagat based upon such random people, at least in Boston)!