Spicy Food, Lurid Talk, and Scary Painting

IMG_2144Although India is a truly fascinating, wonderfully distinctive country, it’s hard to imagine most Westerners enjoying a lenghty visit to a typical urban area there, too chaotic, too crowded, and completely too harsh. That being said, almost everyone here seems to love Indian food, it’s always some of the most requested in Restaurant Roulette, and Indian and Thai food always do a wonderful job of catering to the non-meat eaters in our group. The last time RR dined Indian it was in NW Portland, at Indish, but that was quite a long time ago, a few months shy of 2 years ago. I actually liked Indish, as I thought the food was quite good and I loved the Indian Small Plate servings, but sadly, Indish recently converted itself into a place called the Temple Bar, the same ownership, but now with an emphasis on liquor rather than food. The time before that our Indian excursion was also to the East India Company Grill and Bar, but this was an entirely different sort of gathering, as that was a nightmare where everyone canceled at the last second and there were only two of us, and this time we had a hearty table of 9, many really excited to try out the food there (especially our vegetarians, as they even have a vegan menu.) Joining us for the first time this evening was Andrea’s friend Rachel, who seemed to have a good time, perhaps because she sat next to the always magnetizing David.

I’ve never been to any of those famous Indian restaurants in the far west regions, as we all know I’m terrified of anything west of NW Portland (okay, there was that one dinner on Capitol Hwy.) but aside from those places, which I can’t comment on, having never seen them, it’s hard to imagine an Indian restaurant in these parts with classier atmosphere than the East India Company, even the bathroom is really high end (I love that beautiful sink.) IMG_2167That being said, Andrea found the large painting above the end of our table, a very modernist sort of statement in red, yellow, black and white, quite upsetting. Although it was not particularly to my taste either, I actually didn’t even notice it before she mentioned it, even though it was just to my right on the other side of Heidi. Maybe her motherly glow was blocking out the surroundings. The painting was a weird choice, however, with the rest of the decor. A more positive note about East India C though, it seems well run, and has a good sprinkling of Indian employees, management, and perhaps Indian owners. Also, as David mentioned, you can actually go there and see people of Indian ancestry eating, probably not a rarity in Beaverton or Hillsboro, but not that common at most of the Indian restaurants in downtown Portland, so that’s another good thing EIC has going for it, the food appeals to East Indians!

Although I had run into a traffic jam on the freeway, and had to find parking downtown, I was still a few minutes early. When I got there, though, several group members were already scattered around the lounge area having cocktails and happy hour snacks. Maybe because he was one of the earliest arrivals, David had already established a special little relationship with one of the waitresses, a colorful, middle aged woman with a not at all West Coast accent. IMG_2155We were all insanely jealous of how many times he got called honey, and it was remarked that perhaps she was “warm for his form.” That David, always the chick magnet. We just can’t keep him under wraps. Gina was sitting on my left side, and we also had lots of discussion on what chick magnets we are, literally (don’t fear, nothing “scary” here, we both have hen houses with goofy, treat-loving chickees.)

There was also much discussion on Heidi and Julian’s offspring to come, as those who had not joined us at Gilda’s did not know their big news. IMG_2156As it happens, the very day before, they had found out their child would be of the male variety, the third little gentleman born to a Restaurant Roulette member while “engrouped,” the two other birthing mothers being Tori a year and a half ago and Grace somewhat before that (I think???) Do you suppose good food and male offspring go together? Hmm, us female members must come from somewhere (not counting that big egg I fell out of) as there are always more of us than the male members. Speaking of male members, though, according to Heidi and Julian, their little man already has quite a prodigious one of those, according to the Ultrasound, and even though Heidi is not scheduled to give birth until September, it’s a wonder that it still fits inside her birthing parts at all.

I suppose because India is such a hot, humid place, many of the drinks on the cocktail menu were of the really cool, refreshing variety. Here are some that we tried –

IMG_2159Rangpur Chill  -Fresh cucumber and Indian green chilies are muddled and shaken over ice with Tanqueray’s  Rangpur Lime Gin. Served ice cold and straight up, this hot and cool drink is perfect for tantalizing taste buds .
Madrasi Margarita – Tequila, Triple sec, mango, lime & cilantro adds intrigue to this Margarita named after one of  India’s leading port cities.
Masala Mojito  – A quick favorite, this refreshing cocktail mixes muddled lime, mint, a pinch of Jal Jeera Masala and just enough simple syrup to create a gentle equilibrium. Topped with soda water, makes for a spritzy, but not too sweet drink!
As I’ve said before, I guess I’m just way behind the times, because all these new-fangled acclaimed cocktails full of bitter this, or bourbon that, and absinthe whatever just do not appeal to my aging palate, so this was the perfect cocktail menu for sad old me, gin cocktails, margaritas, and mojitos with interesting twists. Gina kindly let me sample her Rangpur Chill, and because I’ve been a sucker for those cucumber drinks over the last couple of years, I decided I would have one too. To be honest, I think I liked hers better than mine, mine might have a bit too much of the chilies, but still heads and shoulders above any of those furniture polish tasting drinks, or anything with a weird oily texture (think Teardrop Lounge.)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Restaurant Roulette, it’s that I’m not the only person who loves nice breads. And what bread is really better than fresh Naan, or in the case of EIC, fresh Naan and Kulcha (similar to Naan, but of a different thickness.) IMG_2146Sometimes I buy the frozen naan they have in the freezer at Trader J’s and pop some in the oven when I want a nice little snack, and most of the time I think, not bad. In contrast to the lovely fresh breads they have at EIC though, you might as well be eating a pillowcase filled with cardboard, there’s no competition. Even better, several varieties to select from, my favorite being the Peshawari Naan, a variation with raisins, nuts and spices. Delicious, hot and soft, yet still crispy. That’s one thing you rarely see left behind, uneaten, on the table at an Indian restaurant, fresh flatbread (of course with our group, you rarely see bread still in the basket 5 minutes after it’s brought to the table, although if Glenda the Crust Monster is in action, you might see some sad, naked bread innards still languishing there.)

IMG_2148The menu at the East India Company really is so vast, and many of the items look quite similar, so who ordered exactly what, and what they thought of it, at this point in time I can no longer say (and I really heard only about a third of the opinions on the food anyway.) Having kept the receipt, however, I can tell you what we ordered, and make a few comments on random items, especially the ones I ordered or tasted

Mixed Green & Mango Salad – I ordered this, and thought it was fine, and refreshing, although some might find it disappointingly plain compared to many of the more exotic starters.

Papdi Chaat – Mini crispy ‘poories’, garbanzo, potatoes & spiced with chaat. Topped with yogurt, tamarind & mint chutney – Quite the adorable name, and a beautiful, elaborate molded presentation. One of the most popular items at the table.
Tandoori Murgh Salat – Tender morsels of Tandoori chicken with tomatoes, salad greens & cashew nuts garnished with split pea vermicelli and artichoke pakora
Tandoori Khumbi (Grilled Mushrooms) – Marinated in five herbs, with ginger & lemon. Spicy Tamarind-Date Chutney
Muchli ka Tikka – Grilled seasonal fish marinated with roasted garlic, mustard, curry, fresh ginger & lemon – David had this, and it very very interesting, rather spicy and smoky tasting. Heidi said if she returned, this would be her choice.
Tandoori Chicken – Chicken marinated in thick yogurt, spices & Kashmiri cayenne. Served with Onions, Peppers & Lemon wedges – Yes, I’m an Indian Food wimp, I love the country but my GI System doesn’t, so I always get this. A nice sized portion, not as dried out as at many places, and much spicier than everywhere else, except perhaps Swaagat.
Shrimp Vindaloo – This popular dish from the Goan region with Portugese influence is the spiciest curry on our menu. A blend of red chilis, vinegar, and other spices, such as ginger, cumin, and mustard seeds – John had this, and I heard from Barbara it was delicious.
Chicken Saag – Saag, or palak, dishes are spiced spinach with onions & tomatoes, common in northern India. Saag makes a tasty and healthy dish .
Paneer Tikka Masala – Marinated paneer cooked in a masala sauce
Rogan Josh (Lamb Shank) – Lamb shanks, traditionally slow cooked in Kashmiri spices – Barbara had this, and she loved it.
Begam Bahar Ratan (Scallops & Asparagus) – Baby scallops and asparagus cooked in an aromatic sauce with cashew nuts, lemon, ginger, green chilies and cilantro.
Chicken Tikka Masala – Chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, baked in a tandoor oven and served in a masala sauce.
Hara Mushrooms – Green Peas, Potatoes, cooked in house caramalized Onion gravy, topped Cilantro – Gina had this and was filled with great anticipation. When it got to the table she discovered it was quite spicy, and while she liked it, she could only eat it in small doses.
Breads – Made to order and baked in the Tandoor oven – Naan,  Garlic Kulcha, Peshawari Naan, Spinach Naan, Paneer Naan – All were ordered and disappeared before too long. I did hear Heidi say something about liking the Garlic Kulcha better than the Paneer Naan.
Gulab Jamun – The name still makes me think of a prison camp for Middle Eastern terrorists, but it’s hard for me to imagine them eating these delicate little donut holes soaked in sweet syrup. Okay, but lacking the decadence I need in a dessert.
Mango Cheesecake – I didn’t have a taste, as I can only take so much mango at one sitting, but it was the hit of the evening, and Heidi and Julian came across as astute dessert pickers.
IMG_2162Chocolate Chili Cake – Everyone seemed let down because it just tasted like chocolate cake and didn’t set any tongues aflame. It looked to me like about the sort of chocolate layer cake I had hoped for at Gilda’s when I was served a torte thing instead.
Mango Lassi – Where was Frank when we needed him, that Lassi freak? David liked it though, very smooth and refreshing.
This was another of those dinners where a decent sized group and a long table made it hard for me to hear too many opinions on the food or the restaurant, although EIC certainly had far superior acoustics to many of those trendy, open rafter, concrete floor places we visit, and although the restaurant seemed to be doing a decent business, it wasn’t especially loud. IMG_2153Basically the remarks I heard came from the four people sitting closest to me, and I think their opinion was largely favorable. It seemed like Barbara and John were quite pleased with what they ordered as well, and were glad they had finally made it to East India Company, as it had been on their list for awhile. One thing I noticed this night was that although all Indian restaurants rely on many spice blends to create their authentic cuisine, East India Company tends to rely on chilies more heavily those most of the other Indian places I’ve tried, from cocktails all the way to desserts, so much of their food is on a spicier spectrum than one might expect. Not overwhelming, though, like Ethiopian or some such cuisine, but it’s good to make sure your water glass is full at all times (luckily the staff here is very attentive to that need, and few glasses were less than half full for long.)

Luckily East India Company is professionally and graciously run, as this night we really pummeled them with the credit cards. I have a rule to never put local dining out on a credit card, so I paid cash, but everyone else this evening used plastic, so that was at least six credit cards.IMG_2157 It’s good this wasn’t one of those “no more than 2 credit cards per table” places. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen that mentioned for a bit, so maybe restaurants are so desperate, with the economic downturn and all the competition in P-Town, that they’ve eased up on the rules a bit. I understand why places have the limit on credit cards, as you pay a percentage of your profit on every card you process, but if people need to charge their food, especially when dining out is so expensive, you just have to deal with it. I know it’s also confusing for the servers when one bill it paid with 6 credit cards, it certainly confuses addle-brained me when I’m trying to figure out if we are generating enough money to cover the bill, but anything that assists my members with paying for their food and coming to the dinners is fine with me.

As a side note, a few months ago someone wrote to Andrew Knowlton’s (pretty boy editor of Bon Appetit) Etiquette Column asking what he thought of group diners paying separately for their part of the check. IMG_2154He said he thought it was immensely tacky, that one person should cover the bill with their credit card and everyone should pay that person back. Although I didn’t like this rather arrogant fellow much to begin with, this totally infuriated me, and seemed totally out of touch with the average American’s economic reality. What, are only rich people supposed to go out and dine at good restaurants, and the rest should go to places we can afford like Jack in the Box or KFC? When a few years ago a large group of us went to Oba!, I seem to remember the bill was over $600. Is someone supposed to assume this sort of credit card debt so they look really classy? I won’t even absorb the credit card debt for my own meal, let alone assume interest on several people’s meals.I eat out one time every three weeks, and it’s really expensive these days, am I to get a second mortgage on my home to avoid anything approaching tacky??? DOWN with stuffy, snotty food editors, and UP with us real sorts of eating folk (those of us with credit cards and food budgets!!!) Especially on an evening when we are embracing the food of a third world country where the tab from one of our dinners could probably feed the average person for a month.