Carlyle turns to 'coastal' Indian cuisine

When water damage caused the Carlyle Club to close for renovations, it gave the upscale Lebanese cafe an opportunity to reinvent itself - a necessity because it had become a semi-forgotten restaurant. It's hard to be an upscale dining room in an apartment house that used to be a Quality Inn & Suites.

This has always been a difficult location for restaurants. I'm not sure why other than the parking, which is no better and no worse than there is around many city places. For more years than I can remember, the Carlyle's dining room was a Chinese restaurant called the Dragon Palace. I don't remember ever seeing many customers in it; maybe it survived on takeout.

Then it became a handsome upscale restaurant called Preston's 500. Preston's never really took off, and eventually the owners of the Ambassador Dining Room nearby took the space over and turned it into a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Lebanese food didn't work out so well for them, so when the renovations were completed at the end of last month, the Carlyle reopened as a "coastal Indian" restaurant.

Don't make the mistake of thinking this refers to a particular regional cuisine. As people have pointed out, India has a variety of coastal cuisines. I think the idea is to suggest that the food will emphasize seafood and be lighter than the Indian food Americans are used to. A number of regions are represented.

Besides the change of cuisine, the restaurant now has a fixed-price menu as well as a regular one. For $25 you can get a three-course meal.

Is the fixed-price menu a bargain? It is if the crab cake is still on it. Yes, I know the coastal cuisines of India don't feature crab cakes, but it was unexpectedly the best of all our main courses. The Carlyle's crab cake is fat with lumps and seasoned with just a hint of Indian spices. And who knew a crab cake would go so well with a ginger-spiked cocktail sauce, a shredded fresh vegetable mix with broccoli that added pretty color to the plate, and a timbale of white rice?

Dessert is what interests me least in Indian restaurants (even though there are both American and Indian choices here), so I was more intrigued by the moderately priced a la carte dishes than the three-course prix-fixe menu.

The new Carlyle offers six varieties of dosa - a sort of lentil and rice crepe - one important thing that sets it off from many other Indian restaurants around here. All of them sounded appealing; but the basic filling of potatoes, onions and lentils with lots of fire suited me just fine. The dosa came with a couple of chutneys and a small bowl of lentil soup.

The same lentil soup, heartwarming and layered with flavor and heat, is worth ordering on its own. I recommend getting it with lentil dumplings floating on top (vada sambar as opposed to idli sambar). The dumplings are deep-fried, but so flavorful and light they practically glide on the surface of the soup.

You won't find samosas on the menu; but you will find a grilled potato cake studded with peas and onions, which tastes very much like the filling of a samosa. It rests on a tangy-sweet tamarind sauce. Visually, it's a little too brown, but the flavors are brighter than its looks.

An unexpected feature of the menu is a selection of unusual salads, like a fresh-tasting arugula and slices of roasted acorn squash dressed with yogurt with accents of sliced almonds and mint. These are something of a holdover from the Carlyle's former incarnation. The avocado salad with roasted corn and red peppers, for instance, is close to one I remember from before.

As for the entrees, our waiter steered us to the Kerala fish moilee, slices of whatever firm white fish is freshest in a ginger-garlic coconut milk sauce. It didn't inspire me. I would try instead the halibut wrapped in a dosa with organic spinach or the salmon with lentils.

More of the menu is taken up with lamb and chicken than I would have expected from what I was told about the place before I ate there. I like the fact that the "fiery" lamb curry with fennel and tomatoes is not so fiery - an American palate can distinguish the spices in it as well as heat.

More fruit is involved with some of these dishes than you may be used to, like the boneless chicken with pineapple, coconut and lime. (It's not as sweet as it sounds.) Apricots and dates make their appearance as well. Maybe fruit will be one of the dessert choices eventually. When I was there they included a cheesecake and a chocolate cake, neither of which interested me much, and a fine gulab jamun in a delicate rose-water syrup.

My main concern for the new Carlyle is that Baltimoreans are used to thinking of Indian food in terms of familiar dishes (chicken tikka masala) and quantity. You won't find much of either at the Carlyle Club (not much of the latter because the restaurant seems determined to keep entrees $20 or under). The fact that the food is "plated," as opposed to being served family style, may throw people off as well.

Diners will be happiest here if they come to enjoy the serene, comfortable dining room, with jazz playing in the background; for the attentive service by waiters in black tie; and for flavors they may not have experienced before. And the dosa. If you go the Carlyle Club for no other reason, go for the wonderful dosa.

carlyle club Address: 500 W. University Parkway, Tuscany/Canterbury

Hours: Open for dinner nightly and Sunday brunch.

Prices: Appetizers: $6-$9, entrees: $14-$20.

Contact: 410-243-5454.

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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