My favorite trip to the Indian subcontinent was actually a weekend in east London. Curry houses line the streets, serving a variety of Bangladeshi and Indian dishes -- including chicken tikka masala, which in one poll recently edged out fish and chips as Britain's favorite dish.
Certain flavors and cuisines have the power to transport one culturally, and for a decade I've been searching for a curry that takes me back there. Indian food usually strikes all of my senses: Eyes are brightened by the vibrant colors of the cumin, mustard seed and other spices. The smells of roasting spices laced with sweet coconut waft through the air, while griddles sizzle and the sounds of a raga fill the air.
But the sense of taste is the one most crucial. Unlike the jolt of a jalape¤o or habanero, Indian spice is richer, more complex and lingering. It's this magically complex combination that makes the search such a challenge.
Richmond historically has not been a hotbed of fine Indian cuisine. Most native Indians I know regularly trek to Washington, D.C., or New York City for their fix. Or they just eat at home. Nonetheless, I was excited for the return of an Indian restaurant to Richmond's North Side, the first since Ram Pai moved and his India House on Westwood Avenue became Malabar in Short Pump in 2004.
Moving into the space that used to house L.A. Grill, New India brings diversity to a neighborhood that needs more dining options. On our first visit we were greeted by a young man sporting a largish Bluetooth ear gizmo so big it was distracting. He sat us in a booth and proceeded to wipe down our table. A low rumble filled the restaurant the ventilation system directly above our table seemed on the blink and it sounded like we were below deck on an ocean liner bound for Calcutta.
Our meal started well veggie samosas were crispy and piping hot and the condiment tray included mango, mint and tamarind chutneys and spicy lime pickle. Unfortunately, the naan, straight out of the microwave, was chewy. Entrees were a mixed bag. Chicken tikka masala was palatable but mild, even when we asked for a 9 on the 1-10 heat scale that was offered. The tandoori non-veg grill was virtually inedible shrimp roasted to a crisp, lamb and chicken overcooked and dry.
On a second trip I sampled the requisite lunch buffet and was even more disappointed. I brought along an "expert witness," a native Indian friend who concurred that New India failed to deliver. Dishes were overcooked and mushy, vibrant colors dulled into a monotonous series of chafing dishes. Even the rice failed cold and plain, without a hint of color or care for detail.
As I lamented Ram Pai's departure from the neighborhood, I decided to visit his newest venture, Malabar, for some buffet benchmarking. At Malabar, Pai offers many of the same dishes as New India on his buffet but that's where the similarities end. Dish after dish was perfectly spiced, piping hot and artfully presented. Basmati rice was dressed up with carrots and peas; breads (naan, puri and dosa) were fresh from the oven and the perfect vehicle for coconut chutney. The day I visited, I was one of two or three non-Indians there a comparison point for other restaurants in town.
To be fair, I know that I can't hold a Richmond restaurant to the same standards that I experienced in London. But New India needs to work to compete with its West End counterpart.
I decided to try New India's takeout options. When I walked in to pick up my order, I was bowled over by an overpowering smell of curry hanging in the air like a wet blanket. Clearly the ventilation system isn't up to snuff. But this takeout meal was better than my two previous visits. Garlic naan was fresh but not particularly garlicky; puri (a whole-wheat bread) was a bit greasy and certainly not "puffy" as described. Chicken jalfrazie, with a heat index of 9, was spicy but one-dimensional.
New India has lots of room for improvement; for now it will become an option for takeout. Unless great strides are taken in care and consistency, it will remain merely one of a stack of menus for perusal when cooking at home just won't do. S
New India ($$)
5516 Lakeside Ave.
Lunch buffet: Monday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.;Friday-Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m.