Fells Point had been without an Indian restaurant since Mehek closed about two years ago. In late March, Vinay Wahi, a partner in the Akbar restaurants, opened Darbar in the Aliceanna Street space where Talay Thai had been the most recent tenant.
Before the Thai restaurant, there were an Italian restaurant and a Greek restaurant, and this restaurant space has always had its pluses and minuses. Always, people point out the odd location, which feels less in the neighborhood than on the way out of the neighborhood. Parking, too, has been an issue, but the new owners have a courtesy lot across the street. Just call ahead of time.
The interior, basically two adjoining long rooms, is a little tricky. Those Mediterranean places felt right at home with the timbered ceilings and stucco walls. Darbar, I'm fairly certain, is the first restaurant not to slap a mural on one of those walls, which is brave, but it leaves the main dining room feeling a little too formal, a bit stiff. But the room feels much better as it fills with other diners. The formality, which extends to the service, is a rarity for the neighborhood, and I think there's something to be said for Darbar resisting the urge to hip the place up.
It's only now, looking more closely at the menu, that I'm realizing just how much depth there is to Darbar's menu. The printed menu could do a much better job at presenting Darbar's offerings. There are the familiar saag, kofta, vindaloo and kormas for anyone who wants them, but mixed in among them are plenty of preparations that not every other Indian restaurant serves. The menu could make a bigger deal out of them, and our server, who came through in the end, was initially reluctant to help us uncover Darbar's more unusual dishes.
Darbar is likely the only Baltimore restaurant, for instance, with shrimp til tinka on the appetizer menu. It'd be a shame to miss it. Spiced with mace and cardamom and coated with sesame seeds, the shrimp have the enveloping, complex flavors you look for in an appetizer. They don't need the dipping sauce that's brought for them.
And instead of the usual pakora or samosa, it was a pleasure to have a palak tikki, a lovely pan-fried patty of spinach, split peas, herbs and potatoes. Paneer is what holds it all together and gives it such a satisfyingly rich taste. I liked another seldom-seen appetizer here, the benghan aftab, deep-fried slices of chickpea-coated eggplant, but I wish there had been twice as much of it. The portion seemed skimpy.
The refreshing and savory papri chaat works well as a shared appetizer, especially if you think of it as an Indian version of nachos: crispy flour crackers with chopped potatoes, chickpeas and onions, topped with yogurt, tamarind sauce and spices.
All of the entrees we tried at Darbar were satisfying. The nagging feeling persists that they could be better if Darbar risked pushing its customers a little. I loved the sauce of the chicken xacutti, a spicy curry laced subtly with roasted coconut. The coconut flavor came and went, tantalizingly, and the only thing that kept this from being a sublime dish was its use of white meat instead of more flavorful dark meat.
The only entree the menu labels as spicy is the lamb chili fry, which tosses cubes of lamb with coconut, curry leaves and dried red chilies. The lamb was tender, and the flavors were expansive and rich. If the heat had been dialed up just a smidgen, I would have been perfection.
Goa fish curry was a perfectly pleasant mild entree of halibut cooked in a coconut cream sauce. There are a few more unusual fish offerings worth considering, like the garlic shrimp bhuna (herbs, ginger and garlic) and the fish moilee (coconut milk with onion, coconut, green chilies and onions).
The tandoori section includes some unfamiliar offerings, too, like a grilled paneer chutney tikka, shrimp adraki (prawns marinated with ginger, yogurt and herbs) and shrimp jahangiri, which we tried and enjoyed for their spicy, slightly vinegary simplicity.
Our favorite dish of the night, though, was the heaping plate of crisp-fried okra tossed with spices and mango powder. These were so tasty and such a nice alternative to the typical heavy and creamy Indian vegetables. It even made a believer of an inveterate okra-despiser at the table.
Dessert at Darbar takes refuge in very familiar buffet items like rice pudding, gajrela (the grated carrots with pistachios and raisins) and rasmalai (those spongy cheese dumplings). They're served plainly and perfunctorily.
Darbar comes close to being a destination restaurant instead of a welcome amenity for its neighborhood. The food is better than fine, but the atmosphere borders on the stale (the tinkly music doesn't help), and the dutiful servers we met didn't warm up to our probing questions about the menu. Darbar just needs to push it a little.
Darbar ran a coupon deal the day after I visited. The deal was for the lunch buffet only. I wish it had been for dinner, though, because I think people would enjoy dinner at Darbar. We did.
Where: 1911 Aliceanna St., Fells Point
Contact: 410-563-8008, http://www.darbarbaltimore.com
Hours: Open for dinner daily and for lunch Monday through Saturday
Prices: Appetizers, $4.25-$13.95; entrees, $12.95-$24.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]