There are two possible reasons why India West's dining room was so sparsely populated the evening of my final visit.
One involves the presence of a Russian businessman speaking in ponderous, but voluminous tones to three young patrons of Indian descent. On the phone—which he used several times, once even putting a caller on speaker—he referred to the three as his "family." Yet in table conversation he labeled them "chicken shit" and bristled every time the woman sitting directly across challenged his thinking. "How do you talk like that?" he finally asked, strongly insinuating that women should be seen, not heard. "I ought to slap you in your smackhole," he finally told her.
I was situated halfway across the room and heard the entire conversation. It became background noise, a kind of annoying verbal Muzak—and I felt sorry for the elderly couple seated at the table next to his. They appeared to be uncomfortable, though if they harbored any hope the manager might remind the gentleman of his surroundings, it was dashed when the manager took no steps to intercede and quiet down the man.
Should the occasional encounter with, shall we say, such obnoxious clientele not cause you to rethink a return trip to the new "upscale" Indian restaurant, the cooking might.
The lamb samosas, for example, pocketed dry and crumbly meat in crust so chewy, you might reasonably suspect the pastries sat for some time before a quick turn in the microwave just prior to plating. And they ride on a bed of lettuce, shredded and then allowed to brown naturally following the time-honored manner of school cafeterias. The bhaji arrives on the same green-brown mess—although in this case, the starter is crisp and dark with a grounded, spicy batter brightened by sweet sautéed onions.
It's a decent appetizer that brings up a key problem with India West. The restaurant claims high-end status, but the kitchen sways unpredictably. Salt lassi carries a nice, funky aroma, as if the yogurt was cured from goat's milk. The wash of sodium hits your palate late, after the gentle wave of musty and sour flavors. Mango lassi, on the other hand, attracts your eye with its vibrant, deep peach hue—then attacks your palate with sugar. It's like sipping mango syrup cooled by a few drops of sour milk.
Yeah, I know—these are lunchtime coolers in India, not examples of serious cuisine. But they are indicative of the restaurant's troubles. Instead of hiring a chef to guide the kitchen, owner A. J. Duggal and his son run things from the front of the house and cook from afar, so to speak. Duggal also operates the longstanding (24 years) Kebab N Kurry in Richardson. He imported experienced kitchen staff from that downscale location and somewhat replicated the menu: the same samosas, onion bhaji, mulligatawny, chicken chaat, kadhai paneer...
Two concepts, one menu. Should the residents of North Dallas and Addison feel cheated or should the Richardson restaurant's regulars think "that old curry joint's been dishing out upscale Indian for two decades without telling us—score!"
As in the first location, guests can order entrées mild, medium or hot—which is, when you think about it, a convenience that should give you pause. A chef works to bring disparate ingredients into harmony. He or she doesn't just reach for a couple of chiles when the order reads "hot." And despite the reputation of Indian food among some Americans, the essence is dense flavor rather than heat. The restaurant even admits this when they describe korma as "a mild almond and cream sauce."
So I can order a hot mild sauce? This is one confused place.
In fact, when I first stopped by the restaurant—toward the end of lunch rush one weekday afternoon—they were set up for buffet service, which hardly screams high-end. When I asked about the regular menu, my waiter said "buffet only." A minute or so later, after a brief consultation with the manager, he returned sheepishly with a menu and an excuse: "I'm new here." He then proceeded to assure me about 10 times that my next course was on the way.
Geez, did they have to rush some cooks over from Richardson on short notice just because someone asked for the regular menu during buffet service?
Maybe the thing that bothered me most is that, in dish after dish, one spice dominated the flavor profile. What makes Indian cuisine so beautiful, though, are such tedious details as the somewhat ephemeral concepts of "cool" and "warm." Indian cooks use these as a guide to flavor their dishes and spend time toasting garam masala to round out the cumin, cardamom, star anise and other elements, blending six or seven spices into one densely layered powder. Diners may not be able to pick out each individual ingredient, but they should know it's there.
By comparison, India West's kitchen seems somewhat ham-handed—their claims to authenticity loosely applied. For instance, onion bhaji was traditionally an accompaniment. The Brits—probably the No. 1 consumers of Indian cuisine outside the subcontinent—elevated it from side or snack to starter. India West's bhaji would not be out of place in a British pub. In fact, The Londoner in Uptown serves an equally nice version. On my second visit I ordered chicken tikka, a Punjabi dish in which meat is marinated in yogurt and spices before cooking kebab-style in a tandoor oven. Generally they serve tikka with coriander chutney, tamarind chutney or both, which showcases the effects of marinating and the tandoor cooking.
"You want it dry?" my waitress asked, apparently surprised that I didn't specify a sauce. "You don't want masala?"
Well, tikka masala is more of a Western adaptation, so—no—I want chicken tikka from a restaurant promising real Indian fare.
Still, it's not all distressing. The restaurant concentrates on favorites from India's northern reaches, where food draws influence from Pakistan and—going way back—the Persians. The tikka comes alive thanks to the seasoned yogurt marinade, which seeps into cubes of white meat, lending it a creamy, earthy and tart character. The tamarind chutney they leave with papadum to start the meal rips at your senses in the best possible way. And while it's impossible to prove they used a real wok-style pan to prepare their lamb kadhai (as would be proper), the meat did ooze musty, gamey flavor. Meanwhile, the vegetables—thick slices of onion and bell pepper—lent a neat and fresh snap.
Good stuff here and there. On the whole, though, India West is just a more enticing name for Kebab N Kurry. But if you want the Richardson restaurant's cooking in a more handsome, upscale environment, you won't be disappointed.India West 5290 Belt Line Road, Addison, 972-503-5000. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Friday, noon-3 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$