THE EAST INDIA COMPANY GRILL AND BAR

Yes, the name is a tad strange, obviously a bow to westernization, but the East India Company is a worthwhile place to visit nonetheless. Housed in the lovely old Medical and Dental Arts building across 11th from the back of the Central Library, it’s certainly one of the most tasteful Indian restaurants in Portland. The space, although a tad unorthodox, has much of the modern sheen that appeals to business class travelers in the downtown core, as well as many sweet touches that give it warmth and friendliness. When you enter, you find yourself in the foyer/reservation section, then take several steps up to the elongated bar area. The bar has dark walls and dangly mini crystal chandeliers, and would certainly be a pleasant place to pull up a stool and while away an hour or so with a frosty gin and tonic or a nice glass of wine. Along the walls are several two person tables with gleaming white linen, probably for happy hour and perhaps overflow dining. On the walls are early 20th Century photos, most likely of the final days of the Raj and British rule in India.

Once you travel through the bar corridor, you enter the main dining room, sage and brick red colored walls contrasting nicely with the hanging drapes, soft and cozy off-white booths, and the dramatic windmill lighting fixture that dominates the center of the ceiling. Everything else is a dark color, and the juxtaposition of tones creates a soothing, high-end atmosphere for a well thought out Indian dining experience. The main dining area also features additional antique photos taken in India, more white linen with bejeweled napkin rings, and cozy embroidered pillows illustrating typical Indian flora and fauna. It’s a nice place, certainly romantic enough for a special date, comfortable but classy. Also, quite interestingly, I saw as many Indian looking people dining here as Westerners, something you don’t necessarily see at the Indian restaurants east of the Beaverton high tech corridor.

As for the food, the menu is quite substantial, featuring almost all Indian favorites, included meats prepared in a tandoor over. The prices, while not exactly cheap, fall mid-range for quality Portland dining, the average specialty dinner costing $16-$20 dollars, although the side dishes are a tad meager, a smattering of potatoes or a spoonful of rice. I did notice the menu had been rather “dumbed down” or simplified compared to that posted on the East India website, so maybe they were attempting too many things or just didn’t sell enough of certain items.

As per usual, I ordered my boring old Indian food standards, Tandoori Chicken and Naan. Many Indian foods, especially the stews, curries, and lentils, play mean and nasty games with my digestion, so I usually stick with my old standbys, unless I’m at a buffet where I can try little bits of various items. The naan I selected, a fruit and nut version was quite good, heavy but puffy nonetheless. The tandoori chicken was your typical skin and bones, verging on dried out and impossible to eat version, the way it always comes out when properly prepared. I’m never quite sure if Indian food tends to feature the most malnourished chickens available, or if the long, hot cooking just removes all the fat and juicy flesh and adheres the remaining meat to the bone, but good tandoori chicken always seems to turn out that way.This was tasty enough tandoori chicken though, but as is always the case, I couldn’t tell one wizened, fractured piece from another, and I couldn’t eat it without my knife, fork, and many requisite bones skittering across my plate from the struggle to remove dried out meat from bone. I’m told the traditional “Butter Chicken” was also delicious, this version as always containing chunks of grilled chicken breast served in a thick tomato curry sauce.

The wines by the glass were relatively limited, rather expensive ($8.50 for a glass Pinot Grigio) and the pours were disappointingly small. The management seemed friendly, and service was fine, if not overwhelmingly wonderful. As is per usual in these parts, though, the waitstaff were not of Indian extraction (I always find this a let down, I love Indian accents, except from telemarketers on the phone;) I only saw one exotic looking fellow with a topknot carrying around a tray, other than that, boring Anglo-Saxon type service.

I always hear that to get good, authentic Indian food in Portland, you have to go where all the local Indian population is, around Beaverton and Hillsboro. I’m much too lame for a driving ordeal like that, however, so I only know the Indian places downtown and on the eastside. (I’ve also heard mixed reviews of the Indian restaurants Out West anyway.) Of the places I do know in Portland, I would say the East Indian Co. is one of the best. It’s certainly much cheaper than Plainfield’s, and less antiquated. The ownership is more customer friendly than semi-hostile places like The Bombay Cricket Club and The india Grill. The decor is not totally weird and whacked out like the NW Portland Swaagat (a really strange place, but the food is decent and not a bad value,) and it’s definitely a nicer space with more economical food than The India House, two blocks north of East India Co. on 11th. And it’s by far more of a real “Indian Restaurant” than Vindalho, which bills itself as “spice route cuisine”, and is more of a fusion place. So if you like Indian food, check out the East India Co., downtown Portland is not exactly a dining hotspot these days, and I think the decent restaurants there can use all the patronage they can get.

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