There's probably some Australopithecine lizard brain thing that triggers my sense of conspiratorial intimacy whenever I go below street level to dine or drink. That or something about strangers gathering in dimly lit subterranean chambers appeals to the suppressed romantic in me. Genetic or poetic, it hardly matters when once below ground I'm facing a flank of chafing dishes offering mouth-watering food from the Indian subcontinent.
12:27 p.m. We make our way down the steps and enter Akbar, 823 N. Charles St. Judging from the size of the crowd, my dining companion and I are far from the only Australopithecine romantics in Baltimore. Seating in the dining room is somewhat close and the tables small, helping to make the most of the space. Light splashes up against the brick along the south wall, whereas the opposite side, where we find a table, falls more into shadow, adding to the underground allure.
A staffer tells us we could hit the buffet line whenever we're ready. We don't expect him to riffle off a list of specials or distribute menus, but he doesn't even ask us if we'd like something to drink.
The sophisticated diner, and I fancy I recognized a few in the place, probably disdains obsequiousness in his servers, preferring to call for their attention if they want coffee, soft drinks or a spirit from Akbar's utilitarian bar. I notice with a brief pang of envy a table of four young men, clearly Bohemian existentialists, with demitasses of thick black coffee. The sighting suggests espresso is available. Our table makes do with water.
12:30 p.m. At the buffet, we clutch our plates and begin the trek down the line. We skip an uninspiring bowl of lettuce and pass by the soup, planning to return. Never do. I love Indian cuisine and show very little discretion in selection. I try to sample a little of everything. It makes for an embarrassingly heavy plate.
My dining companion also lists India's cooking among his favorites and has dined in the country as well as neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan. His conclusions reinforce my assessment of Akbar's offerings. A more caustic critic might pronounce it relatively bland. I think "delicate" is a better, more fair description. Akbar's flavors, all embracingly familiar, lack intensity.
We dislike nothing but nothing provokes raves. The paneer jalfreji, a mix of cheese cubes in stewed vegetables is the stand out with luscious tomatoes. The chicken tandoori is a brilliant red and the meat wonderfully tender and moist, where some of the other dishes, including the rice, might have suffered a bit from resting in their chafing dishes.
The chicken tikka masala is mild and creamy: combined with rice, a perfect comfort food. The triangles of naan are fresh and just warm. We want a bit more cheese in the saag. And we both think the green beans in onion paste are another fine example of how India "gets" vegetables.
For the newcomer to Indian cuisine, all the pans have name tags. Some of the pans, however, are nearly empty during our first pass. That surprises me, since there are a couple of staffers standing nearby apparently keeping an eye on the stock. On the other hand, during our second, more modest collection, they'd resupplied those items.
12:59 p.m. We surrender our second-round dinner plates and pick our way back for rice pudding and gulab. My dining companion gives a thumbs up to the rice pudding and I took his word for it. I tuck into the gulab, sort of a large doughnut hole soaked in syrup, served warm, decadently sweet (probably goes really well with espresso). It was the only over-the-top sensation of the meal.
1:12 p.m. We finish a fun, large, and, at $9 apiece, relatively inexpensive lunch at a space with plenty of character. It's easy to see how Akbar has survived a quarter-century in Baltimore. And for western suburban neighbors it's good to know it has a location in Howard County at 9400 Snowden River Parkway in Columbia. I've dined there and loved it, found the spices far more intense than those at the Charles Street location and think it well worth an excursion to compare the two.
Where: 823 N. Charles St.
Contact: 410-539-0944 or akbar-restaurant.com.
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Lunch entrees: Buffet, $9
[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]
Dining time 45 minutes