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Foreign Affair

Does Richmond finally have a great Indian restaurant?

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Most places in Richmond are too specialized, says Mehta; they serve only the food of the owners' home region. But hailing from Bombay allows Mehta and his master chef — Ramesh Gowda, who spent 17 years at the five-star Hotel Taj there — to show off the diversity and breadth of Indian cuisine.

To that end, there are 150 items on the regular menu, including a variety of vegetarian and meat options. They range from a dozen styles of home-baked bread to a cornucopia of curry dishes, beautifully executed classics such as vindaloo and tandoori, and humble staples made with the "cottage" cheese known as paneer.

But can a restaurant that's devoted to presenting a breadth of cuisine really deliver the depth required to make for a great dining experience? In India Garden's case, the answer is both yes and no.

On the one hand, dinner was fantastic. We started with a heaping plate of "Chicken 65." The steaming mixture of tandoori-like chicken and peppers was nicely spicy and could have made an entrée portion on its own. The accompanying garlic naan, a tandoor-baked flat bread teeming with roasted garlic, was equally good.

As a rule, the first time I try a new Indian joint, I order vindaloo. This stew of red curry, chicken and potatoes is my benchmark for the white-hot end of the Indian spectrum, and Chef Ramesh's rendition does not disappoint. Piquant in the extreme, yet delicate, this is a dish that takes its time working up to your boiling point. The perfectly turned new potatoes were a nice classical appointment I haven't seen elsewhere in town.

My wife opted for a milder experience; the chicken Madras traditionally comes spicy, but Indian Garden takes requests for heat on any dish, within reason. The rice-topping stew of roasted chicken got a nice lift from exotic kafir leaves and coconut milk — a complex dish, well executed.

Despite Mehta's dedication to authenticity and diversity in the dinner menu, what I saw at the lunch buffet on another visit was the same old fare I've seen at a dozen other places in the city, which isn't to say it was bad. The vegetable pakora was good and crispy. The naan was fresh and delicate. But the chicken tikka masala was cold and didn't taste very fresh, and the options were limited. For the money, Richmond offers better buffets.

Dessert was another area where we were disappointed but not surprised. Indian restaurants are not known for great desserts (rice pudding and gingered carrots anyone?). India Garden offered more options, but they fell short of our hopes. My wife ordered her favorite — lassi — but was served mango juice over ice, not the yogurt-thickened "smoothie" she expected. I decided to give their homemade ice cream a try but found it to be a bit dry and grainy (if you can imagine dry ice cream).

India Garden has been open only since September, and in many ways, the jury may still be out as to whether Mehta has filled what he sees as Richmond's lack of a truly great Indian restaurant. But to see a truly great restaurant Web site, and even place an order, check out Mehta's other specialty on the Web. S



India Garden & Grill ($$)
9550 Midlothian Turnpike
320-5010
www.indiagardengrill.com
Lunch: Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.




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