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A cacophony of chatter and clatter greets diners as they enter Mint Leaf, which has sprouted in the spot once occupied by Darbar Indian Restaurant and, most recently, by Restaurant Brana. The din seems surprisingly strong for such a modestly sized room and betrays a tranquil décor defined by dark wooden chairs, linen-draped tables, a copper-toned cement floor, and cream-hued walls minimally tacked with tasteful artwork (including a six-foot-long wooden Hindu hand-carving). The only visual noise comes via Bollywood pop music videos splashing vivid colors across TV screens placed high at either end of the rectangular space; the exotic tunes weakly weave through the loud crowd like plucked sitar strings at a convention of rappers.
We were 30 minutes late and arrived to find our reservation had been voided. The host, a gregarious man with a penchant for hugs, promised a table "in 10 minutes." It turned out to be more than a half-hour, which would have been fine had somebody offered us water or perhaps menus or maybe even some bread. These are the kinds of gestures one expects from an establishment with a $25 minimum spending charge per person, which is owned by a corporate group that runs a chain of some 20 "Woodlands" Indian restaurants around the world, and, most of all, from any place that simply wants its customers to be happy.
Water was eventually brought upon request, but we were otherwise ignored until a table opened up. Once we were seated, a discombobulated tag team of waiters came by only when absolutely necessary — as in taking the orders and bringing the food. On subsequent, less hectic weeknight visits, however, service was better — if still shaky.
Mint Leaf's most distinctive offerings are the dosas. This southern Indian specialty comprises a thin, crisp pancake made from ground fermented lentils and rice that comes folded around stuffers such as masala lamb or spicy chicken. We went with a traditional filler of puréed potatoes and sautéed onions — which when flavored with spicy red chutney might be described as a knish with chutzpah (and tasty flavor). Lentil dipping sauce (sambar) and a deliciously fierce coconut-cilantro chutney are served alongside.
Occasionally fiery seasonings can be quelled with fresh fruit juices, yogurt lassi, or chaas, a salty snap of a lassi drink infused with cilantro, cumin, and ginger. A concise global list of wines concentrates on varietals with enough verve to stand up to assertive spicing, but most patrons appear to favor chilled Kingfisher beer ($4.95).
Platters for two come arranged with a sampling of four vegetarian ($18.95) or meat-based ($24.95) appetizers. This is something of a bargain, because individually, the former cost $6.50 to $8.50 apiece, the latter $7.95 to $12.95. The nonvegetarian medley brought two crisply fried keema samosas crammed with semipiquant minced lamb; a long, caseless sausage of lamb ground with onions and northern Indian spices; a piece of dry tandoori salmon and two firm-fleshed fillets that tasted like smoked whitefish; and tender tandoor-roasted hunks of boneless baby chicken meat. The last was so juicy and fully infused with flavor from a ginger, garlic, and yogurt marinade that on a return trip we ordered it whole as a main course (murg tandoori).
The downside of going the sampler route is that it detours from less conventional selections such as the street foods known as chaats. One of these, bheel poori, is a snack-like potpourri of puffed rice, crushed biscuits, potatoes, onions, and peanuts that tasted somewhat similar to the old Chex "bridge mix" that housewives used to throw together when hosting mahjong games. Had it been more fully dressed in tangy chutneys, as is customary, it would have seemed less so. Tokri chaat, a darkly fried potato basket skimpily filled with "a salad of vegetables and fruit," featured only the latter. A fruity-sweet yogurt-chutney dressing was decent enough, but save this one for dessert.
Indian breads are always a treat, and Mint Leaf's are the best in town. An assortment basket carries a combination of nan, roti, and fluffy kulcha rounds rife with onions and coriander. À la carte choices include a butter-brushed circle layered with mint (laccha pudina paratha) and a puffed poori-like pillow of fried dough (bathura).
Entrées divide into seafood, chicken, lamb, rice, and vegetarian dishes. The last category is largest and included some of the most satisfying foods. Try dal makhani: black lentils cooked overnight and finished with caramelized onions and cream — texturally like Cuban black beans with sour cream, but steeped in a deep, slow heat that creeps into the throat a few seconds after swallowing. Also a hit was makhani mattar paneer: cubes of chewy curd cheese in a mellow pool of creamy tomato sauce greened with spinach and peas. Coconut rice matched smartly with both — the basmati pleasantly imbued with mild, milky-sweet flavor and flecked with ginger, cashews, lentils, and mustard seeds. Lemon rice faintly fragrant with curry leaves might make a better partner for lamb rogan josh, whose meat was stewed in a curried tomato sauce of properly potent piquancy.
On hand is the usual medley of phyllo-wrapped desserts, some soaked in honey and nuts, others perfumed with rose. My preferences lay with butter-laden, cardamom-spiked gajjar ka halwa, referred to as "warm carrot fudge" and, like real fudge, delectable with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Scrumptious, too, was the shrikand: saffron-and-sugar-suffused yogurt custard capped with pistachios and julienned papaya.
Mint Leaf doesn't cost a mint, but it is expensive for Indian food. Most nonvegetarian main courses run $16 to $20, which sounds reasonable enough, but appetizers and breads don't come cheap, and a plate of plain steamed basmati rice is $3.50. There is also a fee for raita and crisp papad wafers, formerly freebies at such places.
Miami boasts few noteworthy Indian restaurants and certainly no great ones. This Gables eatery is certainly as good or better than other local spots of its ilk, but not dramatically so. You might say Mint Leaf doesn't fall far from the ghee.