Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Press Herald Strikes Again - Jewel of India

Jewel of India treats the palate, from subtle to spicy
Translation: Jewel of India treats the palate, from subtle to spicy to fucked if I know....

SOUTH PORTLAND — The dazzle that fills the Jewel of India Restaurant begins with the light from 13 small chandeliers and one enormous chandelier in the center of a large room. But even as your eyes adjust to the glitter, your attention is drawn to the even more distracting Bollywood dancers, gyrating relentlessly across landscapes in India and the world, on a large TV screen on the far wall.

Unfortunately, not one of the fourteen chandeliers fell on my head. I’ve never seen a TV before….

The action is so mesmerizing, you may need to beg a dinner companion's pardon for your distraction. But watching the dancers is energizing. Even dancing in the rain, they are blissful and synchronized, creating the impression that all is right in the world.

I’ve decide to take a break from my job – reviewing food – to tell you about shit that no one cares about.

And everything really was right, one night during dinner at chef/owner Prem Sharma's Jewel of India, a beloved Biddeford restaurant that opened this South Portland branch last fall. The sweet coconut soup, aromatic mulligatawny soup, elegantly spiced tikkas, vindaloos and curries and tender bread held flavors as happy and lively as the dancers.

Oh – I’ll be referencing the Bollywood film throughout this review, so I hope you paid attention during the first two paragraphs. I have a word count that I need to meet, which is why I often go on idiotic tangents about nothing.

Buried Cane Riesling 2006 ($24) from Washington was full of honey and some ripe stone fruit, perfect with the complex spices of the dishes the Jewel of India does so well. The small wine list with mostly inexpensive wines and a few beers does the job, but a longer wine list would certainly be welcome.

Why do you bother talking about wine when you know nothing about it? Welcome for whom?

Lovely Tikki ($3.50) are crisp spiced potato cakes with peas that the menu calls a specialty of Punjab, Land of Five Rivers, a wheat-growing state of northwest India, or possibly a larger region that includes the Punjab state of Pakistan. A dab of fresh onion chutney, from the chutney sauces that accompany meals, makes it even better.

The menu calls it a speciality of Punjab, but when I Wikipedia-ed it, I found out otherwise. Once again I’ve utilized information that is completely useless to the reader to meet my word count.

Lashaydar Paratha ($2.95) is a thin bread with tender, buttery layers, hot from its rapid cooking on a tava, a flat or concave griddle. It is hard to believe the flour used to make this paratha is whole wheat, but the restaurant manager Raj Hyder assured me that it is.

It’s hard to believe that someone pays me to write about food, but the Press Herald Manager, Fucky McFucktard, assured me that they do.

Since all breads are made to order, their freshness is beyond reproach. Other breads on the list, including the various nans, are cooked in a minute or so in the broiling-hot interior of a tandoor oven, a cylinder of ceramic. The bread is slapped against the inner wall and sticks there till it's done.

Since all breads on the menu are made to order, all of the other breads are irrelevant compared to these breads. They are slapped against the inner wall in the same manner that you would enjoy slapping me.

Coconut soup ($2.50) was like dessert, with a subtle sweetness and a light, watery texture, small bits of coconut and a sprinkle of cardamom on top. Mulligatawny Soup ($2.50) gave off the fragrance of ginger and proved thick with lentils. Yellow lentils are cooked with water, salt, ginger, garlic and turmeric, according to Hyder, to make this classic British-Indian soup.

This soup proved all the naysayers wrong being thick with lentils. Yellow lentils are cooked this way, according to Hyder. Who knew that you were going to learn so much about lentils today?

Listed on the menu as a chef's specialty, Paneer Tikka ($15.95) arrived sizzling, its mild, toothsome rectangles of cheese swathed in an intense red sauce and draped with tender sauted onions and sliced green pepper. We'd consulted with the waiter about the spice levels of the dishes, and he'd offered to take a dish back and heat it up when it seemed too mild for us. Fortunately for one friend, she had eaten some of the Paneer Tikka first – when the spiciness was indeed light and easy to swallow.

What the hell are you talking about?!!? You should have consulted the waiter about your poor grasp of Indian food. I’ve got something light and easy to swallow for you…

When we took the waiter up on his offer, and he brought back the geared-up dish, its heat brought tears. Only one of us couldn't resist enduring each searing mouthful till it was done.

Like assholes, we took the waiter up on his order. The cook, who wished we were dead, made the food spicy.

A side dish of raita ($2.95) cooled down the palate – but it had been the last of that day's batch, a serving so small that the waiter had added plain yogurt. He told us he wouldn't charge for it.

They probably substituted cum for "the yogurt."

Tomato curry with fish ($14.95) held a creamy, mild red sauce and a few small pieces of white-fleshed fish, one dry, some chunks of salmon and one more pungent and dark-fleshed, the last a surprise since so many Maine restaurants feature only haddock or other white-fleshed fish. But the more flavorful, pungent fish was perfect in that spicy sauce, which would be incredible with fresh swordfish, for example.

I’m going to be giving my useless advice for the rest of this review.

Tender lamb rogan josh ($14.95), its creamy sauce infused with almonds and cashews, is slightly sweetened with raisins. "It doesn't have any coconut milk in it, so it isn't sweet," Hyder said. "We never use any sugar in our food." But both shredded coconut – used only in the meat and seafood kormas – and coconut cream do make some dishes sweet, he said.

Once again, I’m not sure why you would need any of this information. It’s sweetened with raisins – but it’s not sweet.

A dish of rice with a little vegetable oil and mixed with peas makes the right foil for all these sauces, with individual grains perfectly cooked.

Why?! Why? Why!

One of us gorged on the delightful house mango ice cream ($3), made with mango puree. It came in a large bowl, drizzled with rose petal syrup. Another one of us, put off by the super-sweet, vividly red syrup fragrant with rosewater, indulged in the kulfee ($3), made with evaporated milk, pistachios, and cashews. Kulfee came in a small caramel-colored dome cut into fat little segments, and each bite filled the mouth with savory sweet, sensuous flavor.

The mango ice cream was inexplicably made with mango. It came in a large bowl – so it was perfect for people who like dessert in large bowls. Another one of us, put off by the fact that I’ve mentioned the syrup so many times, went for something in a more-manageable caramel colored dome.


  1. I'm glad this guy gave this restaurant a good review because it is the best Indian food in Portland as far as I am concerned. Which I guess really isn't saying much...

  2. i am from south asia and the fare here is just so far as hospitality goes , it just happened that i had to go to this restaurant twice in the same day,for lunch and then for takeaway dinner.second time round as soon as i entered the restaurant,the hostess/waitress says"oh,you are back again!"...i mean WTF!