[Note: I wrote this piece in February 2005 and have revised it a bit. I scarcely remember what it is to eat inside in a restaurant anymore. I still have never been to India … .]
Curry aromas waft promisingly in the cold winter air as the smudged glass door opens and closes with every guest’s arrival. Like the miniature narthexes of ancient churches, a small foyer—walls painted turmeric yellow—boasts a tiny wooden table cluttered with flyers and other propaganda about the place. Slightly dark, warmly welcoming, this liminal space even displays its own icon. Hanging on the left-hand wall, reaching from floor to ceiling, the framed face of a female Indian movie star gazes benevolently at nothing in particular.
Passing through a second door, its stained glass center shaped like a leopard’s eye, the adventurous eater moves from the outside world into the essence of India.
Ceiling fans with wide woven rattan blades swish slowly, suspended like crystal chandeliers from the twenty-foot-high ceilings. Walls tinted the same turmeric yellow hue as the foyer burst with light, in sharp contrast to the restaurant’s entryway. No plants in sight, only plastic pink roses and fake philodendrons trellising down the bar at the end of the room. A painting of the Taj Mahal covers most of one whole wall, while other paintings of bare-bellied dancing girls, feasting Majarajahs, and more movie stars hide the rest of the seemingly unlimited wall space.
A waiter—dressed in white shirt, black slacks, and a string tie—appears with startling suddenness, flashing a welcoming grin. Obviously the staff sees passersby through the partially opened Venetian blinds, like cats peering through open windows at birds flittering around outside.
In his quiet voice, the young man asks where we’d like to sit.
Booths, of course. It’s early. The mid-day circus of the regular lunch crowd is nowhere to be seen. But they soon will be, drawn by the gargantuan-but-cheap buffet. We choose one of the ten empty pea-green, vinyl-covered booths. Lined up along the sides of the vast dining room, these resemble monks’ prayer stalls in a medieval European abbey.
As we plop down in the booth closest to the capacious bay window sunlight slants over on us, gauzy, veiling us like early-morning fog. Sitar music wails and moans, whistling through a hidden intercom, an Indian version of Muzak that Ravi Shankar likely had nothing to do with. On a small shelf hanging on the wall over our table rests a bottle of Dancing Bull Zinfandel, a nod to the sacred cows of India. Or just a coincidence?
Are there ever any coincidences … ?
Another waiter appears with a clear glass water pitcher. Filling the tall glasses from which we hastily rescue our crisply starched, white-damask napkins, he inquires if we’d like anything to drink besides water. “Mango Lassi, of course,” says our friend Kathy. As she orders, I notice something: Not a single stray yellow turmeric splot stains any of the table linens. Interesting. My linen napkins bear witness to many spilled bites of chicken curry.
Soon the Mango Lassis sit on the table, thick and syrupy, sweet with yogurt and orange-yellow mango, fragrant with crushed green pistachios sprinkled over foamy tops. After a few sips, Kathy and Tim share a story of their first date, the first time they ever ate Indian food together, the night they fell in love. Ironically, Tim hates vegetables. But when they eat Indian food together, the glow returns, and not just from the heat of the curries and peppers. A kind of communion, really.
As the clock’s minute hand moves toward 12 noon, the other nine booths fill up quickly. Then the fifteen or so small round tables in the center of the immense room fill as well, turning place into a veritable Tower of Babel. Dozens of homesick Indian students, speaking with accents from some of the 300 dialects of India, chat with their fellow university students from Vietnam, Europe, and the United States.
Competing for the ladles at the serve-yourself appetizer table with three long-haired throwbacks to the legions of hippies who journeyed to Indian ashrams in the ‘60s, students load small bowls with ladles of yogurt-cucumber raita, a type of soothing relish, adding a few spoonfuls of carrot pickle dotted with plump tiny black mustard seeds. Unfortunately, visually, these seeds always remind me quite a bit of minute black bugs crawling here and there. But the flavor, ah, there’s no substitute, really.
We return again and again to the buffet table, sweating over the hissing steam trays, spooning yellow dal, reddish-orange chicken curry, ruby-red beef curry, and fragrant vegetable korma over a fluffy nut-and-raisin-studded basmati rice pilaf. Piles of white-flour naan, puffy, stacked on ceramic plates, sit in the center of the table like hot flapjacks. Then torn with impatient fingers, rolled around bites of food, shoved into eager mouths.
Red-onion relish with tiny comma-shaped bird’s eyeball fiery hot green peppers. Chili Chicken, surrounded by blanched pinky-size broccoli florets, baby carrots, and sliced English cucumbers, so like General Tsao’s Chicken, with the same thick mouth-feel of cornstarch and spices. Pakoras somewhat hard today, not lightly crispy as they usually are. Mango chutney, its sweetness sharpened by pungent vinegar.
Overseeing this refuge from reality is a rather portly man, smiling, his protruding belly straining Buddha-like against the top button of his black slacks. A perfect advertisement for the hospitality.
We weave our way through the foyer, eyes blinded briefly by the brightness of the snow in the sunlit parking lot. For a moment, we forgot.
Winter still prevails as we leave India behind.