Odoriferously speaking, the omen is good. A thick, exotic perfume propels me to the table with muscular force. It is the same aroma, or at least I like to think so, that was met with similar satisfaction by the 16th-century olfactory glands of languid Mogul princes lounging on flying carpets in jeweled palaces. Their stomachs must have growled like Bengal tigers while they waited for freshly bathed Brahmins to unfurl domed silver dishes of goat korma and do piaza, sampled three times by food tasters and sealed to thwart poisoning. But this isn't the J. Peterman catalog, so I'll cut to the chase: I am at India's Rasoi in the Central West End, breathing deep.
Just as the Moguls conquered Delhi, India's Rasoi threatens to take over Missouri, with outposts in Clayton, Columbia and this new branch in the Barnes-Jewish quadrant of the Euclid strip. I seldom find it necessary, and never desirable, to dine anywhere in Columbia, but I have visited Rasoi in the Clayton hinterland many times, with consistently palatable results. The setting there is austere, the mood contemplative, the clientele reverent.
Not so here in the CWE. Compared with the mothership, this latest in a string of Indian joints inhabiting the storefront next to Rosie's Bar is downright sprightly. I miss the cute copper pails employed as serving dishes at the Clayton location, but here there's sidewalk seating, the walls are freshly whitewashed, the headwaiter cracks corny jokes in a charming accent, and once I even catch the busboy smiling. There's no liquor license yet (though I am informed it is forthcoming), so beers must be imported from Rosie's. I would hesitate to call the crowd bohemian, because most of that species have effected an eastward migration to points beyond South Grand, but they definitely express a joie de vivre that their Clayton counterparts rarely seem to muster.
Rasoi's $6.95 feed-your-face lunch buffet packs in the medicos with astonishing efficiency, but I am here with Dogtown epicures Col. Tex Trailer and his blushing bride-to-be, Babs Woof, for a restorative evening meal. For reasons on which I will enlarge in a memoir someday, I have eaten nothing but sushi and bananas for several weeks and have worked up an appetite the size of the Punjab.
I have come to the right place.
Babs and Tex have an endearing habit of sharing food the way junkies share needles, so Tex immediately orders the complicated "Rasoi Feast (for Two) for 1 persons." Though small for a colonel, Tex is sizable by civilian standards, yet even he is dwarfed by the resulting hullabaloo. For a few seconds he is the nexus of a flurry of waiters well, maybe there are just two waiters, but they fling around so much stuff that it feels like a flurry and when they vanish in a puff of tandoor smoke, Babs and I are amused to see that Tex has been hemmed on all sides by mountains of food. With no chance of escape. It is a glutton's Shangri-la.
The Feast commences with a dal soup, made from yellow lentils. This is delicately spiced and piping hot, with a consistency that is at once light and sustaining. A squeeze of the accompanying lemon wedge adds another layer of coy nuance. A success.
Narrowly avoiding a collision with the busboy's ubiquitous water pitcher (he is refilling our glasses for the third time in 10 minutes), I make a dive for Tex's noisy tandoori platter. This is a cast-iron skillet on which two varieties of chicken, some bright-scarlet shrimp and a few seekh kabab morsels, fresh from the coals, sizzle dramatically on gobs of crisp white onions. As is often the case with tandoori, it looks and sounds more fascinating than it actually tastes. Tonight the chicken tikka has been overcooked and the seekh kababs (baubles of gingery ground meat) struggle with listlessness, though both are far from inedible. Affecting a strong fishiness, the shrimp is the greatest disappointment, but a single, exquisite roasted chicken leg zesty on the outside, rewardingly succulent on the inside redeems all. Still, as always, it is my fleeting wish that the onions weren't quite so raw.
Along with the tandoori, Tex receives dishes of lamb curry, navratan korma (mixed vegetables in cream sauce), a basket of naan (flatbread the size of a lily pad) and a platter of fragrant basmati rice dotted with peas. Though the lamb's lush sauce is a piquant manifestation of everything I expect Indian food to be, the meat itself proves fibrous and somewhat tough. The vegetable dish, a conglomeration of cauliflower, green beans and limas swimming in a lustrous cream sauce, demonstrates a better balance.
This elaborate production could easily feed the three of us, particularly given that we have already hogged on a gay assortment of little fried things. The appetizer platter, we conclude, is a fitting solution when indecision is the prevailing sentiment. It lines up all the usual suspects: several incarnations of pakora, which is the name given to anything dipped in seasoned chick-pea batter and deep-fried, and a couple of samosas. Of the pakoras, it is the vegetable version with which I bond. Despite the fact that the chief ingredient seems to be cauliflower (a caste of the cabbage community that is generally beneath my notice), they are engagingly seasoned tidbits, done to a crispy turn. Unfortunately, the fried-chicken strips come down on the dry-and-stringy side, and the rubbery paneer pakoras (cheese fritters) bear an unexpected and enervating resemblance to the world's weirdest food, the corn dog.
I remain, however, a tireless booster for Rasoi's samosas. These pastry pyramids, perky A-cups packed with spicy peas and potatoes, are often the subject of my fondest dreams. One is never enough. I promise myself that on my next visit I will order two of these and nothing else, one to be dipped in the sweet tamarind sauce, the other reserved for the excellent hot green-pepper relish.
Meanwhile, having consumed half of Babs and Tex's dinner, I succumb to swinish gluttony and order myself some malai lofta with a shrimp sagwala chaser. The former, vegetable fritters in a rich tomato-onion sauce, have the look and feel of hush puppies. The shrimp dish reveals itself as a huge mound of cooked spinach into which has been folded a handful of the pale crustaceans. These are wan and flavorless, but the spinach is a luminous work of genius: Glossy, tender and arrestingly aromatic, it is as luxurious a dish of greens as I have ever encountered.
By now we are as full as ticks, so it is just as well that our jolly waiter forgets to bring Tex the dessert promised by the menu. Also forgotten, we suddenly realize, were our garlic naan and roti bread, but we are diverted from further ruminations on this tragedy by a great whirling commotion of Styrofoam boxes; our server is adamant that we take all the leftovers home and cheerfully orders us to pack up every last grain of rice. Tomorrow morning that spinach will make a dandy omelette.
INDIA'S RASOI, 4569 Laclede, 361-6911. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Sun.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 5-9 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $9.95-$14.95.