Punjabi punch at Darbar India Bar and Grill


Fueling my inner lust for far-off places, I confess that I’m addicted to travel porn—those many enticing offers coming my way on the internet, with those tempting two-for-one getaways or fire sales to distant continents. Due to the fiscal crisis (my own, not Obama’s), I’m trying to practice restraint. But when an offer to India floats onto my computer, well … Satan, get behind me!

Darbar India Bar & Grill
1221 W. Lake Street

Rewarding myself for refusing to enter my credit card number, I take the card, instead, to my closest neighborhood enabler, the Uptown Indian restaurant called Darbar. Next best thing to hanging out in Delhi, especially since it’s far less risky to devour street food on Lake Street. It’s also, for good or ill, less fiery by far, with spices scaled back for Minnesota palates. Still, bring it on. Clearly I’m addicted to the subcontinent’s vibrant flavors, but please don’t send the 12-steppers my way. Just keep the korma coming.

Darbar India Bar & Grill opened several years ago, after a classy redesign of a former Mexican establishment. A stunning bar/lounge gives way to a sleek, cosmo dining room, uncluttered with the typical tchochkes that find their way into my suitcase. Its extensive menu celebrates the rich Punjabi victuals of India’s northern region, boosted by choice products such as locally-raised, free range chicken and hand-tossed breads from its own tandoor oven.

Oh, and are those breads good! Fortunately for the greedy or undecided, a bread basket option includes three varieties of your choice ($9). The butter-brushed roti, fashioned from whole wheat, proved the perfect vehicle to convey tasty bites from plate to palate. Alu naan, stuffed with cumin and coriander-scented potatoes, put smiles on our faces, as did the richer Peshawari version, plumped with nuts, raisins and coconut.

Scanning the app list ($5-11), we settled on more alu, the magic word for spuds. These tasty potatoes came seasoned with cumin, cilantro and a chickpea curry topping, assisted by dipping sauces of moderately kicky mint-jalapeno and fruity, modestly sweet-and-sour tamarind. An order of mixed pakora brought deepfried patties of veggies caught in a heavy chickpea batter that weighted them (too thick and boring).

Then, looking over the long and way-too-tempting role call of entrees, to stop me from weeping into my napkin when forced to pare my wish list, we ordered way too much food. But because it’s been long-simmered in preparation already, reheating those doggie bags only enriches the flavors. (At least, that’s my alibi.)

The chicken shahi korma, with chunks of white meat swimming in a creamy sauce along with cashews and raisins and cubes of paneer—the compact Indian version of cottage cheese—proved sweet and mellow in equal measure, while the lamb vindaloo, highlighting tender, meaty chunks mingling with potatoes in a “spicy, tangy curry sauce,” proved tasty, for sure, but much milder (and this is not a good thing) than the fiery vindaloos served elsewhere in the metro, never mind the subcontinent. Actually, each dish, which we’d ordered spicy, came too tame for our cravings.

Vegetarian winners included palek paneer—more sturdy cheese cubes bobbing in a rich puree of spinach and cream—a comfort food if there ever was one. I could eat it for dessert. Our favorite, however, was the bangan bhartha, a mélange of smoky, charcoal-baked eggplant, pureed and mined with tomatoes, onions and green peas. All entrees (mostly $11-15) come with fine-grained basmati rice.

What to drink? Kingfisher, of course. But Darbar features beers from other nations, too, as well as cocktails. It also heralds a global list of wines, including several from India. I’d visited several wineries on my last visit and became a convert to how well they paired with their native food, so we drank an easygoing Indian cab. An Indian chardonnay also is listed, although, as I’d discovered, a sauvignon blanc or viognier makes a better partner for those lusty spices. Or try out the yogurt-based lassi, plain or fruit-flavored, sweet or salty.

Finally appeared rasmalai, compliments of the house. While most Indian desserts are super-sweet or even sweeter, this one, composed of paneer afloat in condensed milk and sprinkled with pistachios, soothed wonderfully. There’s also kheer (creamy rice pudding laced with pistachios), the dry-ish and chalky Indian “ice cream” called kulfi, and “regular” housemade mango ice cream and mango pudding, for those who dread a dental visit.

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