About Town

The Indian Chain Restaurant Experiment

Baluchi's ,1431 First Avenue, New York
August 15, 2004

Reviewed by Max Heusler

Most people, like my mother are scared to eat Indian food. They inexplicably believe that because India is viewed as a poor country, the food will have them running back and forth to the bathroom all night or leave them permanently reeking of curry. I, myself, love currys, Nan's, vindaloos, saags, and anything else Bombay can throw at me. With Indian food I'm used to the East Sixth Street variety of home style, buffet, rustic dishes or the upscale, rawa crisp soft shell crab, Danny Meyer fare, i.e. Tabla. So, when my Punjab friend Sumeet, said that Baluchi's was pretty close to the food he used to get back in India, I knew it was my duty to check it out.

Baluchi's are all over the city, so you've probably seen the red awnings and white lettering, there are currently eleven but by the time this goes to publication, I'm sure there will be a twelfth. I'm usually skeptical of chain restaurants and I have a rule to never eat at any of them, but after seeing a favorable Zagat review and my close friend's kind words, I decided to step into the world of Indian chain restaurant food.

The lab rats to accompany me? My mother and father who I usually go out to eat with about once a week. They're your typical boring eaters who prefer the normality that Chinese restaurants, Sushi dens and diners offer. It was time to broaden some horizons.

We stepped in at around six-thirty (my parents hibernate after nine) and were seated at a table that had copper silver wear and cups atop. The wails of Indian music came out of speakers audible enough to set the mood but not loud enough to drown out conversation. I was surprised how full the place was so early in the evening. Once we were seated, we were immediately served Pappadum, which are like big, slightly spicy, Indian crackers. Thick mango chutney and a snappy, vibrant green coriander sauce, too spicy for my mother (spicy to her is anything with even just cracked black pepper on it) accompanied the Indian version of America's bread basket.

There is a great debate on what to drink with Indian food that involves only two candidates, Lassi and beer. Lassi is a thick, milkshake like mango drink that replaces milk with yogurt. I am not a fan of Lassi and I don't like drinking thick drinks with my food. When I eat Indian food, I like beer. Cold, crisp, Indian beer and thankfully for me Baluchi's serves the twenty two ounce King Fisher variety. King Fisher is an Indian brewed beer that is smooth enough to quell heat and refresh taste buds. I will note that Baluchi's offered about three of four different wines by the glass or bottle but to me, eating Indian food with wine is comparable to eating Italian food with grape soda.

For appetizers (5.95-795) my mother wanted a simple tossed salad, which they regretfully informed was not available on that night, so instead of being adventurous she ordered nothing. My father (who loved the twenty-two ounce beers) and I split an order of Aloo Papri, a delicious dish of potatoes, chick peas and fried crackers brought together with a masterful, sweet, dark red, coriander sauce. It is served like a heavily dressed, salad and topped with yogurt and fresh cilantro. For chickpeas lovers like myself this dish is damn close to orgasmic Too many people stick with the American Indian appetizers like samosas, pakoras, or kebabs, if you go to Baluchi's give some of the more off road dishes a shot, you'll probably come up roses more oft then not.

My father and I then had the soup of the day which was described as a chicken, lentil infusion. Although the soup was amazing it was more a consommé, then a traditional soup and I found neither chicken nor lentils, physically in the bowl. What it did have were many different flavors working in complete conjunction to achieve a spicy, rich aromatic climax. The soup was served with a wedge of fresh lemon that when squeezed into the broth brought out whole new level of taste, it became one of the best consommés I have ever hard.

As for our main courses (11.95-15.95) we decided to order and split three dishes accompanied by Nan bread and rice. We chose, Lamb Vindaloo, Chicken Tandoori and Saag Panir. It is important to discuss the quality of Basmati rice and bread when referring to Indian food because they are staples of the dining experience. The bread was divine; the Nan was served just as I like it, doughy but burnt just enough to taste charcoal and not undercooked. Too many times Indian restaurants serve Nan that it is too crisp around the edges which ruins its quality, like an overcooked bowl of pasta. The multicolored Basmati rice was steamed to a perfect fluffy consistency and contained cardamom pods, peas and friend onions, it would play a perfect counter balance to the pungent dishes.

The Lamb Vindaloo was the best I've ever tasted. It was, as the waiter warned me nuclear, hot. I found nice chunks of lamb leg, floating amongst quarter pieces of potatoes and tomato wedges in a vinegary, tangy, sauce. I broke the wonderful heat sweat that chili eaters know well and several times had to cough and take long hard sips of my second King Fisher. My father and mother could not and did not want to try it.

The chicken Tandoori was served on a sizzling hot platter along with onions and peppers. It had a great smoky taste and was the usual bright read color, evoked by yogurt and plenty of food colorings. To me it seemed a bit dry but knew I had scored a huge moral victory when my mother started to eat and actually enjoy it!!!!! She loves barbequed chicken and I think this is probably the closest thing at an Indian restaurant she could identify.

The Saag Panir was what my father as a spinach buff, liked best. Saag Panir is pretty close to America's creamed spinach but substitutes cream for cream cheese. This dish is clearly the best of both worlds, as one gets the health benefits a mound of fresh spinach offers with the decadence of fresh cream cheese slathered throughout. I made sure to get a tray of condiments with the meal that included, hot chili peppers, pickled lime, ratia (a yogurt based sauce) and cooked down red onions. These all serve a great function whether simply served on the side or blended in with the Basmati rice.

We did not eat dessert and to be honest I have to admit that if I was going to a restaurant to eat dessert it would not be an Indian one. I'll let the places with French pastry chefs serve that function. For three the bill ran about eighty dollars and we all left relatively full, even my mother (though I don't know how). Did I get some stomach pains, later that night? You bet your sweet ass, I did but that's because I ate a lot of Vindaloo and that's a trade I've been willing to make for at least eleven years of my life.

So, Max, what's the verdict you ask? Well, the verdict is as follows, Baluchi's is a great place to get typical Indian food, at an extremely fair price. When you take advantage of their fifty percent off lunch special, or $12.95 take out dinner special (which includes an appetizer, entrée, rice bread and accompaniments) you can't go wrong. It is easy to see why the red and white dynasty continues to grow and don't be surprised if someday Baluchis is in malls and shopping centers all over the country. Trust me, if my mother can learn to like Indian food, anybody can.

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