“It’s our way of saying ‘bon appetit.’ ” Our server has just delivered the mixed appetizer platter we’ve ordered, and it must be obvious that we haven’t understood what she said as she set it on the table.
I’m fairly certain she wasn’t describing the food. My knowledge of Hindi is practically nonexistent, but I am conversant with the terms “pakora” and “samosa.”
With a warm smile, she goes on to explain that the phrase has its roots in the ritual offering of food to the Hindu gods – of whom dozens are represented by gilt statues in alcoves set into the walls of India Gate’s dining room.
The statues are a legacy from Bombay Grille, the restaurant that for many years previously occupied this space in a small strip mall near RTP. But the exotically colorful prints of Indian lovers and landmarks (including the obligatory Taj Mahal as well as the restaurant’s namesake India Gate in New Delhi) were added by the new restaurant’s owners.
Dinesh Agnihotry was a chef-partner in Taj Mahal in North Raleigh before leaving several years ago to work in an Indian restaurant in Canada. He returned to open India Gate in December with his wife, Shail, who runs the front of the house.
And who, as it happens, is our gracious and informative server tonight. A retired teacher (wouldn’t you know it?), Shail Agnihotry sets an auspicious tone for the meal to follow.
By and large, her husband’s cooking lives up to that promise. The chicken and vegetable pakoras on our mixed appetizer platter are both toothsome. Meat and vegetable samosas boast a satisfyingly crisp pastry crust, though the meat filling is dry to the point of being crumbly.
There’s nothing to fault with the bhindi masala that follows, a textbook rendition of the classic medley of okra, tomato and onion. Nor with the lamb korma, unless you count wishing there were a few more of those tender nuggets of meat in the spice-fragrant, cashew-thickened sauce.
A respectable Kashmiri naan studded with dried cherries, raisins and coconut, and disappointingly thin, bland mango lassis round out our meal.
I’m pleased when we return two weeks later and learn that India Gate is now serving beer and wine, offering an alternative to mango lassis. And I’m impressed – but not surprised, given our previous experience – when Shail Agnihotry greets us with a cordial “welcome back.”
Granted, the fact that the dining room is nearly empty both times we’ve dined here probably doesn’t hurt her ability to remember us. Like many restaurants near RTP, India Gate does the bulk of its business during lunchtime. Its $8.99 lunch buffet has quickly won a loyal following.
With Shail Agnihotry’s genial hospitality again setting the tone, even a sparsely populated dining room is warmly inviting. She asks us how we’ve been, and seats us at the same table we’d requested the first time.
The food, too, remains true to form: a bit uneven, but with more hits than misses.
Our meal gets off to a promising start with aloo tikki, a popular Northern snack of potato cakes. Here they’re fried to delicately crisp golden brown and served with a small bowl of curried chickpeas.
The tandoori mixed platter, on the other hand, only partly lives up to its tantalizing sizzle. The chicken and shrimp are fine, but tandoori tilapia is fishy tasting. And the lamb seekh kebab the menu promises is nowhere to be seen.
But it’s present and accounted for in the kebab curry we’ve ordered. I can only guess that the chef forgot the kebabs on the tandoori platter, or he only had enough for one dish or the other.
At any rate, the kebabs are succulent in the curry, which is served medium-spicy just as we’ve ordered. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, in fact, as is the curried-spinach-and-homemade-cheese dish, palak paneer.
If the food at India Gate doesn’t raise the bar in a region that’s blessed with an abundance of Indian restaurants, the restaurant is still a worthy addition to the local scene. You probably won’t have to fight the crowd for a table, and service is first-rate.
And where else do you get free language and culture lessons with your meal?
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