Indian cuisine is an unruly knot of temperaments. It's not easy to tame. It's even harder to unravel and understand once it is tamed. Take curry. It's a simple word that has multiple meanings. It's a fragrant leafy herb. It's a paste composed of clarified butter and powerful spices. It's a sauce of varying colors and powers used in any number of gravy-based Indian dishes. It's a powder composed of some 20 herbs, spices and seeds, chief among them cumin and coriander. And pepper. Cinnamon and fennel too. All of them pulverized into gunpowder.
The resulting explosiveness is so powerful that a number of studies allege potent curries arouse the release of endorphins, leading to natural highs, cravings and irrepressible yearnings for ever hotter, more powerful curries. Such a dynamic is known as the scourge of addiction. Curry junkies roam among us.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. USA Today reported earlier this year that studies suggest turmeric, one of the key curry components, almost completely prevented joint swelling in arthritic rats. Not that swollen joints in arthritic rats is a bad thing either. Still other studies suggest curry may offer protection from cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. "Rates of Alzheimer's in India are about four times lower than in the USA," the article notes. Curry contains powerful substances that may enhance memory and protect against degenerative brain damage. Think on these things. Indulge. Get hooked. Plan your fixes wisely.
In light of this, naming an Indian restaurant Temptations might be a stroke of genius. Might be. At the Temptations entrance a small table displays a collection of little burlap sacks filled with cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, peas and lentils—green, yellow, orange, brown. In the soup, these lentils are as pulverized as curry spices. They form a cloud when the broth is stirred. The broth is drab and flavorless, save for a weak streak of soap. Tempted?
The building from which Temptations beckons is perfect for a restaurant. It's raised a bit from the street. The floor is made of rough wood planks. It creaks. Tables are surrounded by weathered wood chairs. It was Yellow and Watel's and Tutto at various times. It has mostly good genes, this place. Couple this with the junkie quotient and brain health factor, and the lines should be forming, tangling up the valet. They do not.
At the entrance, black sticks churn curls of jasmine smoke into the dining room. Speakers seep the undulating vocalized microtones of Indian music—authentic stuff, not jazzercised versions with a soprano sax or a sitar wrestling a cowbell.
Temptations, the word and its implications, are played with on the menu. It's striking with bright, plastic-coated photographs of chicken lollipops or tandoor shrimp, all spiral-bound in a handsome hardboard cover. It's divided thus: First Course, Fire on the Rocks, Vegetarian Desires, Non-Vegetarian Wishes, Requirements.
The menu is a fearsome chore to read, and not so much on account of the tiny type—though there is that. It's the loops and tendrils of the white scripted type on the photographs. It's difficult to discern marsala from sagwala, murgh from shorba, lollipop from leeches.
"Yeah, I know," says our waiter. "I told them that when they made it. Need a light?" He shuffles off to the host stand and retrieves a flashlight. Not a penlight but a small, full-blown flashlight.
With a flashlight you'll learn that "Fire on the Rocks" refers to meats roasted in a tandoor oven; "Requirements" are chutneys, breads and rice; "First Course" is soups (the aromatic, blood-dark tomato soup easily trumps the listless lentil) and those chicken lollipops.
The lollipops rise from a spread of shredded red cabbage. They're wing segments with the meat pushed down into the knuckle to form a pop. They're coated and fried into rusted knots with black polyps on spots where the heat was too intense. They're crisp, moist and relatively greaseless. Ranch dressing is provided for dipping. Ranch?
Strange that in the vast nomenclature of Indian cooking that there should be ranch, uncontaminated by cumin or turmeric or something. Then again, the standard salad on the lunch menu comes with a ramekin of French dressing. French?
Temptations is a prude. It takes a cuisine seething with lust and sensuality and dresses it in full-length skirts and knickers and a bear-hug corset lashed with thick laces. The fervor has been leached.
Handi Pasinda, a lamb "delicacy" marinated in ginger and garlic and allegedly flavored with cracked whole spices, is listless. The sauce is fine: balanced, harmonious, arousing in the slightest. But the lamb chunks are driftwood. They offer nothing, save for fibrous bulk, as if the dish needed ballast.
Entrees come with basmati rice, perfectly formed in mini Jello-mold shapes, laces of carrot woven through the long grains. It is fluffy and supple—and cold.
Culinary intricacies seem wasted here in an effort to appeal to the masses. That's not a necessarily a bad idea, but the dumbing down should still vibrate, if crudely; it should still tease just a little.
The room does this some. Windows have plush red treatments, simply but elegantly draped. The walls hold amusing things: elaborate candle sconces, Indian portraits, long narrow masks. The tables are covered in gold tablecloths.
Still, frustrations mount. With each meal comes a basket of naan, or Indian pita bread. At lunch, the basket steams. The bread is gorgeously moist. When it's pulled and torn, scorched nutty aromas envelop and tease. Bronze blisters break out from the surface symmetrically, indicating even heat. Flavor is fresh, comforting, gratifying and...exciting.
On a second visit the naan went awry. The surface shimmered with oil. Those blisters were charred and crumbled into black ash. The moisture and sensuous steam were gone, drained away by the crematorium.
Chicken sagwala—chunks of marinated chicken breast swaddled in spinach slurry in a metal pot—is good. But, like the rice, it's served cool. Saag paneer, cubes of cottage cheese blended with spinach and spices, is competent but seems timid, sloughing off few aromas.
We wanted to try the fish kebab roasted in the tandoor oven. "To me it comes out a little too dry," our server advises. We insist. Our server was wrong. The fish—tilapia, accompanied by onions, peppers and faded tomato—wasn't dry. It was moist. But it tasted of silt, like wild catfish or some other bottom-grubbing species. The oven did ravage the tandoor shrimp though—dry, shriveled things with a mint garnish and a slight whiff of ammonia.
On one end of the long slender plate with the fish kebab is a rosebud sculpted from strips of tomato skin. It is beautifully folded, origami-like. But stare at it awhile and you notice a strange thing. The tomato hadn't been cored before it was fashioned into a rose. The stem scab is visible on a petal.
This is the thing: The details are off, dampening whatever Temptations is tempting, or attempting. This is a shame. After all, the streets are crawling with curry junkies, itching for a fix. Allegedly. 2719 McKinney Ave., 214-220-0022. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$-$$$.
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