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Restaurant Review: Malabar Hill (2 Stars)

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Delicious tradition, from north to south

When it comes to ethnic food, Americans want “authenticity” (at least we say we do). The trouble is, we don’t always know what that is. Some food writers, for instance, have spread the notion that there is no such thing as “curry,” that it is a cheapened and stereotypical Western invention.

 

Julie Sahni, author of Classic Indian Cooking, wants to set the record straight. The word curry originated in southern India as a way to describe a roasting technique, but it has come to mean a southern Indian spice blend that includes cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, mustard seeds, ginger and red pepper. Curry powder got a bad name because the British made their own blends and used them “indiscriminately.” But the concept of spice blends is an old one. “Making curry with a curry powder is not some awful practice,” she explains. “Not everyone in India sits at a grinding stone and prepares each spice separately.”

 

The misunderstanding may be due to the fact that some of the most popular Indian food in this country—tandoori, biryani, pilafs, kormas and kebabs—are derived from the northern cuisine of the Moghuls (the Indian word for the Mongols). This “royal cuisine” has “masalas” (spice blends) with a very different flavor profile. The most popular, garam masala, includes cinnamon, clove, cardamom and black pepper. “Curry powder from the south is not part of authentic Moghul cuisine,” says Sahni. “But Indian curry is authentic.”

 

That settled, I headed out to Malabar Hill in Elmsford with a better understanding of Indian cuisine. Named for a hill overlooking Bombay, Malabar Hill is set right on Main Street in a white building whose windows have pointed arches in homage to Indian architecture. It is modest but comfortable—a dimly lit dining room separated by two partial walls and decorated with the usual sorts of ethnic pictures, crafts and wall hangings. Malabar Hill offers a good selection of quality ales, lagers and beer. There is also a good wine list, but I prefer beer with Indian food.

 

The service is as fast as you want it to be (even a little faster). We started with the masala dosai ($6.50), a large crepe wrapped around a sort of warm potato salad flavored with Indian spices and ghee (clarified butter). It was delicious and easily shared between three people. We also chose the mixed appetizers so we could try several: papadum (a round, crispy wafer made of lentils); samosa (a deep-fried packet of dough stuffed with spicy ground lamb), and pakora (deep-fried vegetable fritters with a slightly hot curry flavor). Deep-frying scares Americans, but when it is done well (in sufficiently hot oil), the foods aren’t greasy. These appetizers were hot, crispy and clean, as they should be. Condiments, including mint sauce, coconut chutney, and a tomato-based lentil sauce, were freshly made and excellent.

 

For dinner, there was so much to choose from: the hot vindaloos (a curry spice blend with extra red pepper—lots extra); the biryanis (made with aromatic basmati rice and garnished with fruits and nuts), and the bhunas (curry in a tomato-based sauce).

 

We went for one of the house specialties: Chera Rajya dishes from the Malabar and Cormandal coast, along the southwestern tip of India. The Madras lamb ($14.95) was excellent: tender chunks of meat infused with a thick, aromatic, highly spiced sauce. We opted for “medium” heat on this one and got just a touch of heat—perfect for my palate. (Asking for “mild” will get you none.)

 

India has a strong tradition of vegetarianism, and these can be among their best dishes. Malabar lists its 12 vegetarian dishes all together instead of putting them amongst the meat and fish dishes. If you want a vegetable vindaloo, for instance, look under vegetarian, not vindaloo. Kormas are typified by a light hand with the curry spice blend, further tamed by the addition of yogurt (or, in the case of this $10.95 Malabar navaratan korma, buttermilk). I loved this dish; all the vegetables were distinct, and fresh coriander and crunchy peanuts gave it character.

 

Finally, we went for an American favorite—chicken tikka masala. But this one was a little too chewy and just a little tired, like perhaps it had been reheated in the spicy gravy. For dessert, I recommend the kheer ($2.50), a pudding made with rice and milk and cardamom, with a nice milky consistency. The khulfi ($2.95) is a pistachio ice cream that won’t suit most Western palates.

 

But, you may ask, what about the curries? Well, at Malabar Hill they don’t get their own category. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 

 

MALABAR HILL

 

145 East Main St., E

lmsford

(914) 347-7890

 

HOURS:

Lunch, 12-3 pm

Dinner, 5-11 pm

 

 PRICES:

Appetizers: $2.95-$7.95

Everyday lunch buffet: $9.95

Entrées: $9.95-$16.95

Desserts: $2.50-$2.95

Sunday brunch: $11.95

 

RATINGS:

Food—VV1/2

Service—VV

Décor—V1/2

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