Presentation, ingredients equal Mint-condition meal

12/12/2008 12:00 AM

09/22/2009 7:49 AM

I was sitting in the dining room of Mint, lulled into a pleasantly relaxed state by soft Indian flute music, the muted shades of a decor that's as soothing as the restaurant's namesake herb and a 22-ounce bottle of Haywards 5000 beer. And then -- I couldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure -- my jaw dropped when the waiter set the dish of black pepper prawns in front of me.

Mind you, I've seen my share of eye-popping food presentations. Generally, it's an extraordinary demonstration of the chef's handiwork that impresses. In the case of the black pepper prawns at Mint, however, it was the handiwork of nature. There, floating atop a coppery, pepper-flecked curry sauce like boats docked in a harbor at sunset, were five of the biggest shrimp I've seen in an Indian restaurant. No, make that any restaurant, save perhaps those ultra-ritzy steakhouses where shrimp cocktail fetches upward of 20 bucks.

The black pepper prawns at Mint will set you back only $16, and it's a filling entree served with saffron-spangled basmati rice. That's still on the pricey side for an Indian restaurant, of course, and the dish wouldn't have left a lasting impression if owner/chef Daljit Singh's execution hadn't lived up to his ingredients. It did.

According to Rupinder Singh, Daljit's son and partner (he's the accommodating gentleman who stops by your table to make sure everything is to your liking), the black pepper prawns are one of the dishes that earn Mint its "contemporary Indian" billing. Others include tandoori salmon, ginger- and garlic-marinated lamb chops, and Mint chicken kebabs, marinated in the chef's secret blend of spices and cooked in the tandoor.

More traditional tastes will find plenty of tempting options, too. The bulk of the offering consists of Northern Indian dishes which, as far as I can tell, could only be called "contemporary" in the sense that they're served on sleek modern china. For all their familiarity, however, they're nonetheless impressive.

By all means, start your meal with the mixed side platter, which serves up crisp, wafer-thin pappadams with a rainbow assortment of chutneys (mango, mint, red onion and tamarind), raita and pungent mixed pickles. Unlike some restaurants, which welcome you with a gratis -- but severely abridged -- version of this flatbread-and-chutney nibble, Mint charges $5 for its mixed side platter. Believe me, it's worth the splurge.

Chicken samosas make a fine starter, too, their filling milder than most but their crust commendably crisp. Mint's minimalist rendition of mulligatawny soup is unusually mild, too, so mild, in fact, that some may find it bland. I found its earthy, subtly smoky notes appealing. Those who favor more assertive flavors won't be disappointed with chili chicken, a spicy Indochinese dish featuring boneless nuggets sautéed with julienne peppers and onions.

When it comes to entrees, you won't go wrong with the tandoori mixed grill. The first thing you'll notice is that the tandoori chicken isn't dyed with the usual red food coloring, but instead is spangled with exotic herbs. The second thing you'll notice is that it's supremely succulent. Seekh kebabs can be a bit dry, but everything else on the mixed grill, from chicken tikka to tandoori shrimp, is as good as any you'll find coming out of a clay oven in the Triangle.

Fat, juicy cubes of tandoori-cooked chicken also star in chicken tikka masala, where they're tossed in a rich, spice-fragrant tomato cream sauce. Goat curry is fine, too, though it wasn't as spicy as I'd hoped when I sampled it. Next time, I'll order it extra hot.

Mint offers an exceptional selection of vegetarian dishes, with 13 entree options ranging from the familiar lentil dal and palak paneer to less common dishes such as malai mattar mushrooms and Bombay aloo, dry-cooked potatoes seasoned with cumin. It's a vegetarian nirvana, and even nonvegetarians should order at least one entree as a side dish. You can always get a doggie bag.

The Singhs previously owned Tamarind in Apex, where the menu was more traditional but just as impressive in execution. I was aware of that fact when served those black pepper prawns at Mint, which explains why I may have been slack-jawed, but I wasn't surprised.

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