Skip the Praying and the Loving


The Dinner: Daal maharani at Jewel of India (4735 University Way N.E.)

The Movie: Eat Pray Love at the Meridian.

Eat Pray Love is like that friend who won't stop showing you vacation photos. For the first five minutes, you're mildly engaged--hey, there's that famous landscape/building/stereotypical cultural tic! Then the scenes blur together, you start wishing you'd left while you had the chance, and two and a half hours later, you're straining to hold back snide comments about the mange on the mystical elephant Julia Roberts--er, your friend--is petting. If you're looking for cultural transportation without the cost of a plane ticket, Jewel of India delivers much more effectively.

If you're not yet familiar with the plot (such as it is) of Eat Pray Love, maybe you've seen the tea, prayer candles, and other marketing tie-ins it's spawned. It goes a little something like this: Liz Gilbert (Roberts), a successful author, feels a nagging loss of passion. She leaves her husband because he can't hold a baby right and briefly sleeps with a boy-toy actor (James Franco). Then she jets off to more exotic corners of the globe (Italy, India, and Bali) to find good grub, spiritual peace, and a ruggedly handsome Brazilian boyfriend (Javier Bardem), in that order.

Roberts does her best with the script she's got--when she chomps into a slice of Neapolitan pizza and announces she'll be buying "big girl jeans" without regret, she's almost convincing, even though her cheekbones are sharp enough to cut through the pizza's greasy crust.

But Liz is unrelatable, and it's not just because she passes up James Franco. She ditches what looks like a comfortable life and leaves a string of broken-hearted men in her wake to go on a glorified global shopping spree (yeah, shopping for a new religion counts). She's self-centered, and unapologetically so.

Though some of the other characters are more endearing, they're all flat caricatures. There's the wise black friend, the sassy, toothless Asian guru, and a small army of frenetically gesturing Italians. So rather than consuming platitudes about the beauty of other cultures, why not consume tasty Indian food instead?

A minute of talking to the sari-clad waitress at Jewel of India is enough to be sure the restaurant's the real deal--unlike the characters of Eat Pray Love, who all miraculously speak English, Jewel's staff clearly learned it as a second language. And if the food we had is any indication, their native tongue is the language of the stomach. A basket of fluffy naan disappeared minutes after arriving at our table. A bowl of black lentil daal maharani was gingery and filling, and a heap of soft, buttery white rice helped take its spicy edge off.

It's true Jewel doesn't have Eat Pray Love's design budget. The art on the walls looks like it was rescued from the Indian equivalent of Value Village, and the tables practically bump up against each other. But the effect is cozy rather than claustrophobic. The lack of obsessive styling hints that the restaurant focuses on flavor, not façades.

The desserts at Jewel didn't quite live up to the flavorful standard set by the rest of the meal. My mango custard had the taste and consistency of something squeezed out of a shampoo bottle. Perhaps it would have been wiser to stick to the more traditionally Indian items on the menu.

But despite this disappointing finish to an otherwise satisfying dinner, Jewel of India left me feeling warm and fulfilled. The same cannot be said of Eat Pray Love.

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