Vindalho logoIt was a dark and stormy night……..

Although the majority of the day had seen decent weather, strolling around in mild temperatures weather, once 8:00pm approached the weather went all kablooey, with pouring rain, blowing wind, and other NW atmospheric specialties. I mention this because the weather was so bad at one point Friday evening, the lights flickered several times, went off for a fraction, and fluctuated several times more during our dinner at Vindalho. What was interesting was how nice the experience seemed during that blipiest of outages, Vindalho being a very modern and glassy sort of place, the blowing transformers down the street and the dimmest of lighting made you think of what a fun and adventurous dining experience that might be, chatting and laughing in the near dark with your friendly dining companions. If only there wasn’t that nagging issue of lack of power equating lack of food. More restaurants should try the power outage route, if only all food could be prepared as deliciously in advance.

None of which is meant to imply that Vindalho is not an attractive place with the lights on. Although the less than two year old building is a rather shocking contrast to its early 20th century residential neighbors, the compliments of warm tones and black accents inside Vindalho creates a sleek but welcoming atmosphere. With a similar open kitchen layout to the always fine Nuestra Cocina three blocks down and Vindalho’s well- loved sister restaurant, Lauro, a scant 15 blocks down the way, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that this corner of SE Portland specializes in bustling, trend-setting, open-kitchen cuisine.

Here’s Marnie are comments on what she thought of Vindalho, followed by mine –

I still remember the first time my mother took me to an Indian restaurant. Throughout my childhood, my mom took me on her business trips and on a fateful trip to Manhattan, I had my first taste of the rich flavors of India. I’ve always been pea-averse and didn’t care for spicy food, so it was a real risk to take me. Her concerns, though, were unfounded, from saag to naan, and the rich saffron rice, I was absolutely smitten. My taste has evolved over time and I’ve grown fond of the spicier dishes. In fact, left to my own devices, I’d eat aloo (potato) vindaloo, with mint chutney and raita, served over saffron rice, any old chance I could get.

I was a bit confused by the name “Vindalho.” Looking online, I have found one example of its use as an alternative spelling for “vindaloo” but, for the most part, it appears to function more readily as an easy way for the owners of the restaurant to Google themselves. However, it’s very likely that this is one of several possible phonetic spellings based on the original Hindi word. Not being a speaker of the language, who am I to say?

Leo and I made our way to Vindalho to find most of our party imbibing at the bar. Vindalho is a sleek looking restaurant; manned, from what I could see, by decidedly non-Indian looking staff. The hostess and bar tender were all very friendly and our table seemed to be ready right at the time of our reservation, or relatively soon thereafter.

We were seated near the entrance, though I noticed that there was no noticeable draft from the opening and closing of the door, which I appreciated greatly. I’m of delicate stock, having just moved up from Southern California. Let us not mention my original New Hampshire roots.

We had snacked late, in order to keep our strength until the 8:30 reservation, but we may have overdone that, a bit, as neither of us had our normally enthusiastic appetite. We decided to forego the appetizers of our own, though both of us partook of some of the appetizers that others had ordered. Leo felt the Chicken pakoras were excellent, and I enjoyed the Sweet Potato samosa; both were served with a delightful chutney, chosen to match the flavors of the dish. Leo felt the samosa wasn’t quite as good as the pakoras.

For our entrees, Leo ordered the pork vindalho, so I decided to try something different and opted for the chicken curry with potatoes. We split an order of three chutneys; opting for raita, coriander and red onion date for our selections; the third being the server’s favorite.

Leo’s vindalho, the restaurant’s namesake dish, was disappointing at best. Both of us have eating our fair share of vindaloo and this was nothing like what we’d had before. The meat was stringy and dry and the sauce seemed to rely heavily on vinegar without any of the substance of your standard vindaloo. Perhaps if the restaurant was called, Saag (or, I don’t know, Shaahg), I might have been more forgiving of a disappointing vindalho, but it seems like this dish should have knocked my socks off; yet my feet remained unquestionably clad. The curry, however, was absolutely delicious. The meat was tender and flavorful. The sauce was substantial without being overwhelming. Drizzled with raita and the coriander chutney, it was something worth writing home to mom about; keeping in mind that this is the sort of thing I would actually write home to my mom about. Even in leftover form, it remained delicious.

Neither of us was overly taken with the red onion date chutney, more likely because it didn’t set off the flavors of our respective dishes, quite as well as the other two chutneys did.

For dessert, I had a cup of their Chrysanthemum Oolong tea, and Leo had their coffee BFK (Bailey’s Frangelico and ?? Kalua ??). The tea was very nice, and served in generous portions. Leo’s coffee was acceptable, but nothing spectacular.

We can’t, though wrap up this review, without mentioning the service. Our waitress was no nonsense and all business but her business acumen was spectacular. This woman didn’t write a thing down for the 8 of us yet got everyone’s order perfectly. When it was time to settle the bill, she split and itemized everyone’s bills without a single mistake; perfectly combining couple’s orders and separating those of mere friends. In a restaurant with such an air of trendiness, it was remarkable to receive such attentive service.

Overall, I enjoyed Vindalho (the restaurant, not the dish), even with the occasional loss of electricity. Unlike your standard Indian restaurant, you are unlikely to see the exact meat and sauce combination you might have normally ordered at an Indian restaurant, but the options available were certainly varied enough to suit a range of tastes and dietary limits. The service is absolutely impeccable and except for some faulty bathrooms, one could feel as comfortable taking a date for dinner as a business associate for lunch, to Vindalho.

Here’s what I thought about Vindalho on my second visit ……

Of the seven RR diners that joined me at Vindalho, six were heard to comment (or were included in someone’s comment,) “I/We Love Indian Food so much, I/We had to come.” It’s hard not to notice, Americans seem to love Indian food. It’s hard also not to notice, however, that Portland lacks much in the way of Indian food, everything is too average, too expensive, or too bad. (Or in the case of Bombay Cricket Club, too testy and uncooperative.) Lots of the places have many good features, but are lacking in other ways (Swaagat, Swaagath, India House, please raise your hands.) I wish we could do Indian cuisine “right” here, afterall, we do Italian, Thai, and Mexican so well.

I don’t actually love Indian food that much. I appreciate good Indian food on occasion, but as a person not equipped with one of those wonderful cast iron stomachs, Indian food can be hard for my creaky old body to deal with. And while I love Thai curry, Indian curry is a blend not as suited to my palate. So generally I stick with many of those commoplace Indian standards when I dine, naan, tandoori chicken, cucumber raita, chutneys, basmati rice. All of which Vindalho has its own interesting take on (not counting Tandoori chicken, I think it’s deemed too commonplace for Vindalho’s menu and isn’t available.)

When you look at any of Vindahlo’s promotional literature, I don’t think anything categorizes it as an Indian Restaurant, it’s always “Spice Route Cuisine.” To be honest, I have no clue what “Spice Route Cuisine” is. If I were to draw a local parallel, I would say that Vindalho is to Indian cooking what Siam Society is to Thai Cuisine (although SS does call itself a Thai restaurant.) Basically, quality ingredients are cooked in a certain fashion using techniques and spices of a certain ethnic cuisine, but not necessarily adhering to all the typical “limitations” of that cuisine. For example, at Siam Society you can get steak with sweet potato fries and french-cut pork chops, and at Vindalho you can get beef and onion rings and Mexican shrimp. It may seem strange and jarring to include items like this on these particular menus (someone said “non-authentic” last night,) but to the owners of these two restaurants (both who are “non-ethnic”,) the important thing seems to be the flavors and preparations, not the particular cuts of meat they feature.

I’m mentioning this because I was the freak who had steak and onion rings. (The menu described it as Tandoori Beef and Onion Rings.) Sure, it seemed a weird thing to order at a place like this, but as my dining co-hort Pam and I had just came from having Margaritas at DF, where I had seen numerous plates of sizzling, delectable rare beef pass my post at the end of the bar, I had a hankering for beef (yes, I know, beef at an “Indian” restaurant.) As Tandoori Chicken, while still delicious, is generally cooked to a leathery, greasy hunk of poultry, I was expecting a similar preparation for my Tandoori Beef, especially as I was not asked to what level I would liked it cooked. I’m not certain what I thought the onion rings would be like, maybe the wizened pieces of onion that usually accompany Tandoori meat. What was actually brought to my place at the table were beautifully rare slices or tender steak marinated in Indian Spices accompanied by actual non-greasy, deep fried onion rings with a hint of curry powder and a spicy tomato based dipping sauce. As I had also ordered sides of Naan (very good,) Basmati Rice, and Cucumber/Mint Raita, I had way too much food, and ended up trying to pawn it off on everyone else at the table, most everyone else also seemingly having way too much food.

But back to the beginnings of our meal. Favorite cocktails at our table included Mango Daiquiris, Taramind Margaritas, Dark and Stomys (how appropriate,) and gin and ginger ales. The bar seemed to be pumping out countless dairy laden non-alcoholic Lassis. The Baby Spinach Salad with candied cashews, pickled onions and pears was said to be delicious, and the sweet potato samosas were bursting with creamy, spicy filling. Of the two chicken dishes that were ordered, the Chicken Tikka was proclaimed good, but a bit lacking in the rich sauce that was expected. The Chicken Dhansak Parsee Chicken Curry was said to be wonderfully flavorful. The braised Pork Vindalho was said to be good but not exceptional, but the accompanying sweet potato slivers looked difficult to eat. The Lamb Roti Kabab marinated in yogurt and mustard seed was proclaimed absolutely delicious, and the Survir Saran’s Prawns in ginger, lemon, and cumin marinade were well appreciated. The chutney choices were many, including Apple Ginger Chutney, Cilantro Peanut Chutney, and Red Onion Date Chutney, all being served in a rather unusual pureed form. As a sour hating wussie, I found this particular Cucumber and Mint Raita a bit intense for my tastes, but I appreciated the large cucumber bits and generous portion. Because of the “healthy” portions, and all the side orders, only one dessert was ordered, a chocolate spice cake with coconut and mango. It was a pretty presentation, but I got the impression the separation of the components on the plate made the full effect of the dessert less successful.

As is typical of a David Machado restaurant, Vindalho is exceptionally well run. The service, like that at Lauro, borders on perfection. The waitress, although a tad formal, wowed everyone at the table by not only NOT writing down a single entree or any of the twenty or so side dishes, but by getting every single order right. (hidden tape recorder?) Although we dined extremely late, and closed the place down, the only thing they ran out of was flan. All entrees were served at the same time, and separate checks were willingly volunteered (why can’t more restaurants offer this service?) and itemized perfectly, including the usual 18% tip for six or more people. And a final nice touch, the environmentally friendly brown kraft take home boxes were each labeled with the restaurant name and the date the food was prepared (in case you are such a cosmopolitan diner-out that you have a whole refrigerator full of take out containers.)

It’s true, Vindalho is not an authentically “Indian Restaurant.” Besides the general skew of the menu, the only thing that screamed “India” was the somewhat loud and scary music in the bathrooms (I may never get used to East-Indian singing.) But it’s an interesting place, and an attractive setting, with well thought out, well prepared food and first rate service. I’ll always love Lauro most, because I am a lover of the Mediterranean, but I am interested to see what other cuisine David Machado might have up his sleeve for future dining spots. The man knows how to run a restaurant.