In 1975 President Gerald Ford dodged Squeaky Fromme's bullet, South Vietnam surrendered to the communists, Sonny and Cher called it quits, and House of India opened on Merrick Way in Coral Gables. "I hope they've given it a paint job since then," I said to my wife on the way over.
They have, yet the dimly lit rooms that make up the 150-seat restaurant remain ever-so-Seventies, with dark-green carpeting, beige-and-burgundy table linens, and persimmon-colored walls wainscoted in faux-wood paneling. If not for the telltale Indian "artwork" hanging about, you could mistake House of India for a neighborhood Chinese restaurant -- not distractingly unattractive, but the owners might consider updating it to at least an Eighties or Nineties look.
The menu is chock full of the curries, kormas, biryanis, tandooris, and vindaloos one comes to expect in northern Indian restaurants. Diners are started off with a plate of crisp, warm-from-the-fryer pappadums, paper-thin wafers spiced with crushed black peppercorns that are traditionally served at cocktail parties (in Delhi, that is). A tray of three chutneys follows on the side: piquant mint, sweet tamarind, and spicy tomato-onion relish.
A wide variety of other breads are available individually, as is an assorted bread basket filled with nan (flat bread shaped like a teardrop, cooked on the walls of the tandoor oven), puri (deep-fried in smoking-hot fat until puffy), and paratha (pancakelike and cooked on the griddle with butter or ghee, clarified butter). It is Indian custom to tear off a piece of bread and, using just one hand, wrap it around morsels of food to lift into the mouth. The other hand is kept clean in order to pass a plate of food, pick up a glass of water, or if you're in House of India, attempt flagging down a waiter. Service here is as inattentive as in any restaurant in Miami-Dade County, and that's really saying something.
On both visits it took at least fifteen minutes after we were done eating for somebody to come by and pick up the plates. One time, after clearing half the table, the person disappeared and we waited ten minutes more for someone else to come by and finish the task; another time our dish of rice was never cleared. Both occasions had me looking for a waiter so we could get dessert menus, and waiting and waiting for a waiter to bring the check, and more waiting for the payment to be retrieved.
At least the waiters knew to which table they should bring the food, though of course they had no idea who ordered what. No big deal with the starters, as we shared these anyway, beginning with two orders of pakoras, a sort of Indian tempura. The batter was crackly, the insides filled with melted white cheese (paneer) or fingers of chicken breast. Samosas, deep-fried patties that sometimes come in soft pastry casings, were crispy here, with a nicely spiced blend of potatoes and peas. We also sampled bhaji, a darkly fried chickpea-and-onion fritter. All appetizers were satisfying, none sublime.
There were more highs and lows among the entrées. One of the least successful was tandoori mixed grill, a sizzling platter of bright-red shrimp, cubes of lamb, sheek kebab (minced, marinated lamb), boneless chicken breast, and chicken on the bone. The coal-burning, clay tandoor oven is supposed to sear in moisture via extremely high heat, but the dark chicken meat was the only item in the selection that could be called juicy; the shrimp and minced lamb contained hints of wetness, the cubed lamb and chicken breast were as dry as the humor of India's former colonizers.
We found the same problem with "Bombay grilled fish," described as "marinated in an aromatic herb mixture and grilled to perfection." If only that were true. Instead we were served a mahi-mahi kebab with onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and big squares of dehydrated, less-than-fresh fish flavored only with cilantro -- and baked in the tandoor, not grilled. This, you might say, was the low point.
Meat consumption is a touchy subject in India (after all, Hindus believe the cow someone else is cutting up on their plate may be their mother), but not that big an issue, as most Indians prefer goat as their choice of meat anyway (often buffalo is served as "the other red meat" everyone can feel good about -- except for the buffalo, of course). House of India offers one beef dish (curry), two goat preparations, and plenty of lamb. Lamb vindaloo will appeal to fans of Mexican mole, the piquant curry sauce exhibiting surprisingly similar spices and complexity. Rogan josh is a north Indian Muslim lamb dish with dark, nutty cream sauce redolent of cumin and cardamom, while Moghul-inspired lamb biryani brought tender cubes of the meat cooked in basmati rice laden with almonds and raisins.
India regards chicken as an indulgence, and it's usually one of the most expensive items on restaurant menus. But not in this House, where a plentiful array of poultry entrées ranges from $9.95 to $12.95 (prices here are moderate, though I've been to many less expensive Indian restaurants). "Maharaja Patiala Korma" was delicious at any price, boneless morsels of tender white chicken in a velvety, sataylike cream sauce flecked with almonds, cashews, ginger, and garlic. This, you might say, was the high point.
The selection of vegetarian specialties at House of India includes many dishes containing cheese cubes, but just one with greens (okra). Be that as it may, the makhni dal was properly thick and aromatic, made from cooking small black lentils with red kidney beans, onions, tomatoes, and garam masala (a mixture of spices such as cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves). A too-subtle eggplant bhartha lacked the smoky spiciness of the real deal, but the mashed eggplant with peas, tomatoes, sautéed onions, and ginger made for a fresh, light side dish.
When it comes to Indian desserts I'm always partial to kulfi, an ice cream made with thickened milk, pistachio, and cardamom. The version here was standard and reliable. The same can be said regarding much of House of India's food, if not its service.
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