Flavor: Authentic Indian
Ambiance: Pleasant, fairly quiet
Service: Very nice
For me, at least, Indian food in Asheville is making something of a comeback. Frightened away by some questionable meals at a now-defunct local Indian restaurant, I had decided to reserve any of my admittedly infrequent forays into the world of Indian cuisine for visits to larger cities.
But with the ongoing restaurant boom in Asheville comes a diversity of options: Downtown Asheville has a new fine-dining Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue and another by the Asheville Mall, not to mention the urban Indian cuisine on the Shastri family’s varied menu at the Flying Frog, an Asheville staple for some time now.
In truth, the weather played a role in compelling me into a local Indian restaurant. A severe thunderstorm found me stuck in the insanity that is Sunday mall traffic, an already unpleasant situation compounded by driving sheets of rain. Concerned mostly with the abilities of multitasking soccer moms to commandeer their goliath vehicles while swatting at their squabbling children in the back seat in near-zero visibility, I decided to wait out the storm at India Garden.
India Garden is located in a strip mall, but its ambiance is a bit more charming than you would expect from such a setting. It’s true that it’s fairly hard to forget that you’re in a strip mall, even if you turn your back on the hordes streaming into Cici’s Pizza or Books-A-Million, but the furnishings are nice, the artwork’s lovely and the booths are comfortable. With the evidently popular lunch buffet in full swing, the arrangements of silk flowers scattered about and the piped-in, tabla-peppered Muzak, I couldn’t help but feel as though I were in the dining room of a Holiday Inn in Bombay with the Continental breakfast crowd.
The buffet itself is about what you would expect, if not better. We found vegetable pakoras, spicy vegetable pickles called achar, a refreshing cucumber salad, fresh naan bread, assorted curries and a spicy chickpea stew, among other items. Though the rice pudding was the highlight of my meal, it was all very good – and at $6.95, a satisfying deal.
Dinnertime, however, is the India Garden’s time to shine. Upon arrival, diners are brought light-as-air papad – crispy lentil-flour wafers served with a mint chutney that is subtle in flavor, savory and lightly spiced. Having a snack like this available at the onset of the meal was almost a necessity, as the menu is enormous and took some time to peruse.
I begrudgingly agreed to sample the restaurant’s samosas, as this is one of my Picky Companions favorites; he was first introduced to them on Pakistan International Airlines as a boy. I, however, had less fond memories of the underwhelmingly seasoned, slightly gummy starch pockets with wrinkled peas, which I once purchased in New York, effectively ruining my appetite for the spiced potato turnovers for good.
The India Garden’s samosas, however, are fantastic – very light, perfectly flaky on the outside and redolent with freshly ground spices on the inside, most notably the vaguely floral note of coriander seed. (I have come to think, however, that the quality of the samosas depends somewhat on when you buy them, or perhaps who’s cooking them, because the next time I tried them during lunch hours, they were less extraordinary.)
Another appetizer, shrimp pakora, ordered to satisfy my summer-long craving for fried seafood, was just as deftly executed. The shrimp were tender, wispily cloaked in a subtly but well-seasoned chickpea batter, and served with a tamarind dipping sauce that expertly walked the lines between sweet, tart and spicy.
Next in line was a kachumber salad containing crisp cucumbers, red onions, lime and tomatoes that were an unfortunate color rarely seen outside of winter. Curiously but deliciously spiced, briny and quite fresh, with a sprinkle of cilantro, the salad was an excellent summertime dish, despite the pallid tomatoes, and well worth the $2.59 price tag.
Cilantro found its way into more than just the cucumber salad, and seems to be held in high regard at India Garden – or perhaps the produce supplier is running a sale on the herb. Those who do not appreciate the pungent taste of cilantro would be well-advised to inform the kitchen in advance, as it turned up in both of our entrees, sprinkled with toasted cumin seed over the accompanying basmati rice, and on the restaurant’s delicious tandoori-baked garlic naan. I happened to think that this was a good thing – after beer, cheese and coffee beans, cilantro is one of the most commonly found items in my refrigerator.
Our entrees were brought in little ceramic boats with a large plate of the aforementioned basmati to share. We sampled the Lamb Vindalloo, a rich, fiery hot curry of Portuguese origin, in which languished alternately tender and slightly less tender savory chunks of lamb meat. The dish was successfully pulled off, though Picky Companion pointed out that it contained much more tomato than he had ever had it with while overseas. The richly seasoned curry was flavored with a variety of spices, including big, soft cardamom pods that a person could easily mistake for chilies in the thick red sauce – one of which I foolishly popped in my mouth, despite Picky’s suggestion to the contrary, practically destroying my palate for the rest of the meal.
Another entree, the Bhindi Masala, featured okra, onions, tomatoes and peppers cooked with an assortment of spices in olive oil. It was quite good – a tad oily, but satisfying. India Garden seems to do vegetarian quite well. I enjoyed everything I sampled in the Vegetable Special, a staggering amount of food that showcases several of the restaurants dishes, though the saccharine-sweet mango pudding that was included for dessert was a bit strange. I much preferred the rice pudding and the kulfi, a dense Indian ice cream with pistachios, almonds and rosewater.
India Garden is a bit of a flawed beauty; the food is for the most part very good, mostly due to the chef’s commitment to preparing his cuisine daily, using fresh vegetables, herbs and spices. However, some missteps appeared after repeated visits: The execution of some dishes was inconsistent, the service needed gentle prodding to clear the empty dishes, and a tandoori chicken was brought out on a sizzling platter that was so infernally hot that it filled the dining room with smoke, to the embarrassment of the woman who ordered it.
However, whether you visit there by design or by chance, India Garden is good enough to warrant attention – and seems to have already attracted plenty of that.