Authentic Home-Cooked TasteBy Zarminae Ansari
928 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
For natives of South Asia, Indian restaurants in Boston have often been a frustrating disappointment. Recently, though, a few restaurants have opened that serve trademark dishes with a decidedly authentic home-cooked taste. The latest and arguably one of the best Indian restaurants in the area opened in Cambridge. India Castle is situated on 928 Massachusetts Avenue, between MIT and the school down the street, a few minutes away from the Cambridge City Hall.
Partners Raghbir Singh and Chef Mohinder Badwal had been in the restaurant business for many years before embarking on this venture. The fact that the owners are always hovering around ensures the kind of quality that I was surprised to find at this restaurant.
The service when I went was great. Mr. Singh walked around and made sure things were running smoothly, while the wait staff was friendly, alert and efficient, confidently expounding on the virtues of one type of bread over another.
The atmosphere is lively and makes for a great place to take a date, visiting parents, or where you can just hang out with a bunch of friends. The interior is fairly tasteful -- neither garish, nor too loud -- except for the awful artificial flowers on every table.
You can tell a lot about an Indian meal even before you get to the main course. If the accompaniments have been carefully prepared, the food usually is, too. The condiments and chutneys with the appetizers -- mint, tamarind and onion -- were delicious. I ended up eating them with plain bread: Naan cooked in a Tandoori oven. Then again, I could eat the garlic naan ($2.95) all by itself. That they don’t use prepackaged minced garlic is attests to the general quality of the ingredients. The freshly minced garlic naan is as aromatic as the best garlic bread and is not to be missed.
Other breads include the aloo paratha ($2.95) -- whole wheat bread similar to a multi-layered buttered tortilla with a stuffing of spiced mashed potatoes and peas cooked on a grill with “ghee” or traditional butter. The breads are excellent, especially the plain parathas, but the aloo paratha, a meal in itself eaten with yogurt “raita,” was a disappointment. Maybe it is a personal preference, but I like my aloo parathas to be spicy. The stuffing was fairly bland, perhaps because it needs to be eaten with a good mango pickle such as “Ahmed’s” (available at most Indian stores).
Rice is my pet peeve at Indian restaurants. It is usually a lower quality Basmati, and from the almost dusty taste, you can make out that the rice was not rinsed properly -- if at all -- before cooking. Rinsing until the water runs clear is essential. I usually order bread to accompany my food instead of eating the rice, and I never take it home. The rice at India Castle, however, is not just edible, it is great Basmati that can be enjoyed with yogurt “raita,” the entrees, or simply by itself.
We started with bhel puri, paneer pakoras, and vegetarian samosas for appetizers. Bhel puri is a delicious tangy and crispy snack of minced onions, tomatoes, and herbs with a savory crispy mixture including puffed rice, in a tamarind sauce. It must be eaten immediately before the sauces make the mixture soggy. The condiments and chutneys may be added to vary the taste. The samosas (2 pieces, $2.50) are among the best in Boston. These are turnovers stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes and peas. What makes them different is the deliciously spiced stuffing. Paneer pakoras ($3.95) are deep fried chunks of homemade cheese marinated in chickpea batter -- delicious! My friends and I were already stuffed after the appetizers; they were probably more than enough for four people.
For an entree, we sampled the shahi paneer ($9.95). This dish -- homemade cheese cooked in a mildly spiced tomato cream sauce -- is anything but low-fat, but it is really satisfying and a favorite temptation. Another very similar dish is malai koftas ($5.25): minced vegetable balls cooked in the same kind of sauce. If you go, order one or the other if it is a party of less than four.
The only non-vegetarian dish we tried was the chicken kadai ($10.95): white meat sautÉed with onion, tomato, and bell peppers. The long strips of ginger and fresh cilantro leaves reminded me of home. What more can I say? It was excellent. I have heard friends say that the chicken do piaza is really good too.
At the end of the meal we were too stuffed to try the deserts, so we just had masala chai ($1.50). The day that Indian restaurants learn to serve the kind of milky spiced tea that people will actually drink will be a happy day indeed. It is a sad thing when the closest thing to real masala chai, in my opinion, is Starbucks’ Chai Tea Latte. Personally, I have never had masala tea with fennel seeds or “saunf,” a mixture of ginger, clove, and cardamom. My advice is to lose the saunf ... please.
The restaurant also offers a lunch buffet for the unbelievable price of $6.95. The owners say that they lose money on the buffet, but it is a good advertisement for the restaurant. They also offer free delivery, which I requested for a recent party, and found it prompt and very reliable. I had hoped that there would be leftovers afterwards of paneer pakoras, samosas, kababs, and chicken tikkas: the lack thereof testifies to the quality of the food at India Castle.