By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
You know Indian cuisine will have fully conquered the fast casual segment when you can order it by numbers. There it is up there on the menu board, glowing in saffron: No. 3, a double paneer chicken vindaloo with biggie samosas (delicious with terrific dipping sauces) and mango lassi in a Hulk mug, $4.52. "How would you like your sauce, moist-eyed, streaming tears or full blown spasmodic sob?"
Imagine Indian cuisine through a pickup window (oil cloth bibs instead of napkins and moist towelettes). It's coming. Trust us. There's nowhere left for restaurant architecture to evolve. We already have...
Look at this. The Café Roti menu has a puzzle. They call it "Curry House." Let's give it a try. Step 1, select vegetable, paneer (homemade cheese), chicken, lamb or shrimp. Lamb is a slam-dunk. Step 2, select one of the following: masala (a creamy tomato herb based sauce, our favorite), curry (traditional Indian sauce), balti (North Indian sauce with exotic herbs and spices, a must-try) saag (creamy spinach, a family favorite) and vindaloo (very hot South Indian sauce with potatoes).
Let's kick out "traditional" (curry) and "very hot" (vindaloo) right off the bat and focus on "our favorite," "a must try," and "a family favorite." Kick out the favorites and go for the "must." "Mild, medium or hot?" she asks after pushing the buttons on the fast casual command console. We opt for streaming tears--a good medium.
But first, we have a mug of tomato herb soup. Squint really hard, and it resembles a ladle of Campbell's. But sip it, chew the slosh as if it were a stripe of baseball-card gum, and it opens into a marvel of precision. The tangy layer gets the mouth to sweat while a lacy layer of sweetness haunts the finish. Yet the texture is creamy--not a wet blanket creaminess that gunks the spaces between the taste buds but a shimmering creaminess that slips between them like a strip of Hermés. Cilantro rests on the surface like a cluster of expired mayflies on a lake.
So, too, must we contend with the mango lassi, that beverage rendered from mango and yogurt. It's the color of terra cotta with the consistency of a fine hand lotion. It arrives in a clear plastic cup with a clear plastic lid stabbed through the heart with a clear plastic straw. Presumably, this is so you can watch the pastel liquid ascend through the straw into your body. It's like you're drinking the blood from South Beach like some hip vampire. The lassi surface is pebbled with crushed pistachios.
Yet we haven't discussed how this all works. Café Roti is a counter-service establishment. There's a curvaceous counter with a base done up in bright red mosaic tiles and a menu board from which to order. A sitting area, one with little tables clothed in newspapers and snuggy plush burgundy chairs, is installed for those waiting for their meals to be clam-shelled and bagged for to-go runs. For those who wish to stay, there are booths with stainless steel tables and a wall with large framed jars of mustard powder, cumin, coriander seed and red pepper flakes. Each jar has a label. What kind of person scans these things and remembers the labels? The kind yearning for fast-food toys.
Yet look at this section on the lower right hand corner of the menu. Kid Meal: Meal 1, chicken nuggets and fries. But then there's this: Meal 2, daal, rice/naan and fries. Meal 1 is for those kids with GameBoy holsters and pressure-sensitive blinking LEDs embedded in their Nike soles. Meal 2 is for kids who can brush out a still life as well as Rembrandt and bow Eminem tunes on viola (while rapping).
Admit it. You hated the sort of cultured kid who could eat a Meal 2. They made you feel as low as a chicken nugget under a Nike sole with blinking LEDs. Erase those bad memories and enter the adult comfort zone with hot wings. They arrive in a white bowl, sitting in an orange juice, a fluid with flavor complexities that wouldn't dare tickle a Hooters. The wing exterior is crisp, at least on those not bathing in the sauce, which hovers dangerously between streaming tears and full spasmodic sob. The interior is moist.
Our kid doesn't do a Meal 1 or Meal 2. She does a noodle dish; an oriental number with shrimp. The shrimp are fine: moist and firm with flavors that are neither rich nor vapid nor sudsy. They're in a tangle of thick noodles--cables, really--that entangle water chestnuts, carrots, onion and pea pods, the latter with some blemishes. But this is fast food.