HAVING RECENTLY DINED to the strains of live zydeco music in an Ethiopian restaurant—honestly!--I decided the time had come at last for eating Indian food in Ballard. Owner-manager Mukesh Panjabi and owner-chefs Gian Jaswal and Gurmohan Singh opened India Bistro on the corner of Ballard Avenue and Market Street a year ago, and in that year everyone's been talking about it. But to me, Indian food across the street from Olsen's Bakery just felt wrong, like a big cheesy puttanesca in Chinatown, so I chose other places. India Bistro
2301 Market St, 783-5080
lunch Mon-Sat 11:30-3; dinner Sun-Thu 5-9:30, Fri-Sat 5-10
AE, D, MC, V; beer and wine Until last week, when preparing to meet an India-born associate for dinner. I walked in and realized that Bombay-in-Ballard doesn't come off so strangely after all. The small, windowy room is charming; walls painted in tones of melon and deep-sea blue don't say East or West. Even the menu logo marries the two concepts, with "India" written in elegant script, and "Bistro" in modern European lettering. You look inside the menu and see that squid is one of the appetizers; you comb your memory for the last time you saw squid on an Indian menu, and you conclude: I have got to be in Ballard. As it turns out, the calamari is an anomaly on a menu that is otherwise solidly Indian, with jalfraizies and biryanis and kormas and kebabs and masalas, and all the other lyrical classics of that complexly spiced cuisine. We began with many of those classics on one plate of mixed appetizers ($3.95), which starred a couple of notably moist pasty-like pastry pockets called vegetable samosas, and a handful of deep-fried and curry-fragrant little packages called vegetable pakoras. I spied one chicken pakora on the plate as well, but where the promised kebabs and tikkas were, I do not know. With this plate came two delectable little pots of sweetly fired dipping sauces: one mint, the other tamarind. We hardly thought to mourn the missing appetizers, so thoroughly were we enjoying our little breadfest. To the table on your arrival comes a basket of the Indian crackly flatbread called pappadams, which at India Bistro are liberally speckled with fennel seeds. We also ordered several breads from an easy-to-miss list on the back of the menu, starting with a sensational onion kulcha ($2.50), which arrived hot and puffy and glistening with oil. Stuffed with onions and dry mango and plenty of mint, the moist bread was utterly delectable and the best bargain around. (You could order this the way you might order a single-serving veg pizza, for instance, with an appetizer to round it out.) Spinach naan ($2.50) was another fine bread, stuffed with a thin layer of creamed leaves. Best was the special naan ($2.95), which contained a fetching sweet-savory filling of chicken and almonds inside the wonderful, moist bread. Delicious. Lamb kashmiri ($8.95) arrived the way most of the entr饳 do at India Bistro: as a little single-sized stew in its own serving bowl, with a little bowl of fragrant basmati rice alongside. Since we're mixing cultures, I'll go ahead and compare this deep sauce to a good Mexican chocolate mole, or a mighty Louisiana roux: packing both power and subtlety, richness and the mellowness of cream. Problem was, the lamb chunks were dry. Fish masala ($8.50) was another lustrous sauce, crafted of onions and tomatoes and the mix of Indian spices known as masala. A delicate whitefish was not compromised in the slightest here; this dish was a winner. The biggest winner, however, was the rack of lamb, marinated and cooked in the tandoor oven. This carnivore's feast (which they are virtually giving away at $12.95—go before they realize that) arrived steaming on its platter all tandoor pink and charry, eloquently spiced, and brilliantly cooked over a bed of onion-sizzled basmati. This lamb was flawless. Would that every piece of meat came out of its heat bath so moist and winsome. Ever mindful of duty, our party of three had ordered a fourth entr饠to sample, but it never arrived. As it turned out we hardly needed it—they give you a ton of food here, all so extravagantly rich you can't begin to finish it—but still, the missing entr饠along with the missing appetizers gave us pause. Service, though deeply polite, was scant and slow. Granted, it was a very busy night. But I'm beginning to get the feeling most nights are at India Bistro. WE BEGAN OUR next dinner with a bowl of good ol' mulligatawny soup ($2.95), a robust version of the curry-lentil favorite. We also revisited those chicken pakoras ($3.95) and gave in to our curiosity about what Indian calamari ($4.95) might be like. The pakoras, alas, were soggy where they should have been crisp, but the flavor of the meat inside the lentil-flour casings was just right. As for the calamari—we're still scratching our heads. A little kiss of coriander lent a little Indian flavor, but these crispy deep-fried babies were otherwise as generic as they come. Chicken vindaloo ($8.50), a specialty of the Goa region of Portuguese India, was terrific, with big chunks of potatoes and tomatoes and an abundance of mouthfilling flavor. Likewise a remarkable rice dish (also listed on the back of the menu) called mughlai biryani ($8.95), in which little hunks of boneless lamb, caramelly onions, slivered almonds, chunks of cashew, flakes of coconut, and golden raisins were all held together by a ruddy-spiced, yogurt-deepened basmati rice. This dish was outlandishly wonderful. I'd like to come back to try more of the half-dozen rice dishes. Finally, we ordered the tandoori combination plate ($13.95). Perhaps the kitchen figures only rubes or Philistines order combo plates. Perhaps it figures only suckers order the most expensive thing on the menu. In any case, this tandoori feast was miles from that glorious rack of lamb. Where that lamb was moist, these meats were toughened to shoe leather, particularly the lamb, fish, prawns, and boneless chicken. (The chicken on the bone was all right.) So you win a few, you lose a few. And given that tandoor-cooked meats are frequently tough wherever you order them, I'm inclined to be more forgiving on that point. And given that great rice, and those dreamy naans and kulchas, and that extraordinary rack of lamb, at these prices—I'll be back. Wearing a kilt and a fez, and humming a klezmer tune.