Bring on the Samosas!

Longtime favorite India Oven serves decent food, but there's room to improve

The folks at India Oven wanted a re-review, having last been reviewed in January 2002. They've been asking for one, off and on, for a couple of years. Apparently, it had something to do with the fact that the restaurant's décor was referred to as "dumpy."

Well, seeing as--due to a convergence of reasons--I had not yet visited India Oven, I figured this would give me a nice excuse to check it out.

And the verdict? India Oven ain't bad, but it sure as heck has a lot of room to improve.

Garrett and I visited the Campbell Avenue restaurant on a recent Wednesday evening. We were dining late--it was around 8:30 p.m.--and not surprisingly, only two other tables were occupied. As we pondered the 100-plus things to eat, we ordered lassi (a yogurt drink). I got mango; Garrett ordered sweet lassi (each $1.75). It took a while for a server to bring the drinks, but they were tasty, although mine was mysteriously lukewarm.

The menu is impressive in both scope and quantity. Appetizers and tandoori specialties join dishes starring chicken, lamb, seafood, vegetables and--this is a clear sign that India Oven is more of a Northern India-focused restaurant--beef. We decided to split two appetizers and three main courses. The vegetable samosas ($2.25) and shrimp pakora ($6.50) were the starters; the lamb korma ($8.95) and the shrimp vindaloo ($10.50) joined the meat dinner table ($13.95, includes tandoori chicken, lamb tikka, beef korma, chicken karahai, rice, raita and naan) as entrées--all of which we ordered spicy-hot. We also selected an extra order of garlic naan ($2.35).

The décor--while it won't win any interior-design awards--is not dumpy. The tables are nicely covered in white tablecloths, and all the chairs match. Shiny wood paneling covers the walls most of the way up before cream-colored brick or sheetrock takes over, with multi-colored holiday lights covering the transition. The room is split into two sides by a semi-open wall, and art (depicting gods, the Taj Mahal, etc.) is scattered here and there, along with a bunch of awards on one wall. The carpet is aging a bit, but it looks a hell of a lot better than the carpet in my office, so I'm not complaining. The absence of background music made the place awfully quiet. All in all, India Oven has a cozy, clean, nice feel.

Fairly quickly, the food started arriving. The appetizers arrived first, accompanied by three standard sauces: a green cilantro chutney; a tamarind that Garrett felt was a bit watery; and a salsa-like pepper sauce that we both liked a lot. Speaking of liking things a lot, the samosas tasted fantastic. Full of potatoes and peas, the two deep-friend goodies were probably our meal's highlights. The eight pieces of shrimp pakora (small shrimp breaded in a gram flour batter) were decent, although Garrett was disappointed in the lack of shrimp flavor; I was happy to use them as fodder for the pepper sauce.

As we were finishing up, the entrées started arriving. They looked fantastic. Unfortunately, the devil was in the details.

First, the garlic naan was weak. The naan itself was fine, but it was barely dusted with garlic powder, and you could hardly taste the garlic. Second, the shrimp vindaloo still had the tails on them--a HUGE pet peeve of mine--and the "very special hot sauce" wasn't hot at all. The dish tasted fine, but the tails and lack of spiciness made it a disappointment. Third, the lamb korma was not spicy, either, and the sauce--with onion, cream, yogurt and nuts--was surprisingly bland.

The meat dinner table was a little better. The lamb tikka was a bit spicier than the korma, but not by much. The beef korma tasted OK, but was so dry that even repeated dippings in the raita (yogurt sauce) didn't help. The tandoori chicken, however, was pretty good, and the chicken karahai was the strongest entrée--onions and the creamy curry sauce led the way.

The service, although at times slow (the wait for our check was particularly annoying), was passable, except for one off-putting incident. We had a lot of food on our little table, and at one point, one of the servers was combining our two plates of naan onto one plate. I noticed that we were missing a serving spoon for the lamb tikka and the chicken karahai, and asked "Can we get a spoon for that?" The server snapped: "My hand's clean!" She initially thought I was criticizing her for palming our naan. She realized the mistake quickly, but never apologized for 1) manhandling the naan, and 2) snapping at us.

All things considered, we left disappointed. Thankfully, India Oven partially redeemed itself on a subsequent weekday, when we went in for the lunch buffet ($6.95).

We were impressed by the seven entrée offerings--a curry chicken dish, samosas (which, again, are beyond yummy) a beef/potato dish, aloo saag, a curried vegetable dish, a potato/green bean dish and curry pakora--served with salad, naan, three kinds of fruit and kheer (rice pudding) for dessert. And overall, the food seemed to have more nuanced flavors than most of our dishes the night before. All but one of the dishes tasted great (the curry pakora was too watery and bland). Garrett especially seemed to like aloo saag (a mix of spinach, potatoes and cream), and I thought the curry chicken dish was fantastic. The lunch buffet's biggest fault would seem to be the price--while $6.95 is not a rip-off, another Indian restaurant, just a little more than two miles away, offers a buffet that's at least as good for two bucks less.

India Oven's been around for a while (at least as far as restaurants go), and I'm giving it a recommendation--barely. Considering all of the awards on India Oven's walls from the 1990s and the early 2000s, I can't help but think that they could do better.

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