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RESTAURANT REVIEW

India Pavilion

Great food, great prices -- well worth the walk

By Daniel Metz
STAFF REPORTER

17 Central Sq. (on Western Ave)

547-7463

Lunch Specials $4.50-$6.95

Dinner $6.95-$13.95.

Chances are you may not have noticed India Pavilion among the seemingly ubiquitous Indian restaurants dotting Central Square, especially as it is not easily seen from Mass. Ave. Its slightly hidden location just west of Central Square on Western Ave may also be the reason India Pavilion’s prices are lower, and portions are bigger, than those of many of its competitors. As a value spot for close-by Indian cuisine, this restaurant is a definite find.

Inside India Pavilion, patrons sit in a modest dining room beneath the standard, kitschy painting of the Taj Mahal, just like the one you’ll find in almost any Indian restaurant around here. Dinners are interrupted every so often by sirens from police cars coming or going from the station down the block. But who needs atmosphere when you’re served good food at decent prices, which is exactly what patrons get here.

A word of warning at the beginning. If you are used to traditional Indian food, you will most likely find the offerings here tasty but under-spiced. There’s no two ways about it: if you want anything fiery hot, you have to ask for it.

A recent meal at India Pavilion began with the meat mix platter, which combined two chicken pakoras, two fish pakoras, a meat samosa, a small lamb kabob, and two pieces of papadam (crispy lentil wafers), all for $4.95. The lamb kabob was tender and delicious. The chicken and fish pakoras were simple affairs, about two bites-worth each of chicken breast and white fish fillet, breaded and fried. Nothing too exciting, which is one reason why our accompaniments made all the difference -- for $2.75 additional our meal was complemented with onion chutney, mixed pickles (primarily mango), sweet mango chutney, mint chutney, and raita (spiced yogurt with cucumbers). These added welcome spice and flavorings to the appetizers and the entrÉes.

Since we wanted to get a feel for this restaurant, we chose one of the dinner samplers. For $25.95 the “combination dinner for two” offers a choice of two soups, plus shrimp malai, chicken tandoori, minced lamb kabob, pureed smoked eggplant, rice and bread, and tea or coffee plus your choice of dessert for two.

Notwithstanding the fact that there’s no such thing as “soup” in any of the wide range of cuisines that make up “Indian food” (at least in those that I’m familiar with), the soups India Pavilion offers are nice, tasty starters. I chose the mulligatawny, which was a thick lentil soup with vegetables, flavored primarily with turmeric and black pepper. Our other choice was coconut soup, a sweet (almost sweet enough for dessert), creamy soup floating with dessicated coconut.

The various portions of our combination entrÉe came all at once following the soups. With the accompanying plates of basmati rice and big pieces of delectable, buttery bread (nan), hot from the oven, our table was practically overflowing. The rice and bread give diners a choice in how they wish to consume their meal. Either they can portion the various curries atop a pile of rice, or they can use the bread to grab pieces of meat and scoop or sop up the accompanying sauces.

The lamb and chicken were both served with grilled onions, green peppers, and a lemon wedge -- Indian fajitas, if you will. The lamb was nicely seasoned and perfectly grilled, moist and flavorful. The tandoori chicken was likewise prepared well -- black grill marks on the outside but tender and moist on the inside. Even if you’re not a big fan of eggplant, everyone should try baingen bartha at least once. It’s a great way to prepare this vegetable, in which the smoky flavors of the eggplant mix so well with the Indian spices, and India Pavilion’s version did the trick. The shrimp was the most disappointing of the bunch. It was deprived of the spice and flavorings it needed to really shine, and including mushrooms in this dish is one departure from tradition that really doesn’t work.

Dessert was our choice from the menu’s selections. We had a fresh-tasting mango ice cream and a delicious kheer, served cold. Kheer is a sort of wet rice pudding with nuts and raisins, probably comfort food to those who grew up with it. It would have been perfect served warm on the cold and rainy night we had it.

Our combo dinner, which was suggested for two people, would have been more than enough to fill three hungry people. With portions like these, and good quality food for the most part, India Pavilion offers diners searching for bargains among the Indian restaurants of Central Square a nice option, one well worth the slight detour from Mass. Ave.