The new Indian Cafe, at 201 N. Charles St., is a welcome sight in the restaurant void between the Inner Harbor and Saratoga Street. However, it's in the basement level of an office building, so you have to look for it.
Open just three weeks when we visited, the cafe still has some new-restaurant kinks to work out (achieving consistency in the food, correcting misspellings on the menus, getting a liquor license), but it's off to a pretty good start. Its below-ground space is actually quite pleasant - spacious and gently lighted. The service was friendly and accommodating, and much of the food we ordered was good.
Overall, appetizers were better than entrees. Samosas (pastry filled with delicately spiced ground lamb) were especially good; they were light, not over-fried, and had no greasiness at all. Bendi (sautM-ied okra) was as good as it gets - slightly spicy, served with sautM-ied onion and without a hint of the sliminess cooked okra sometimes has. We split an order of coconut shrimp, which we found fresh, peppery and tender but curiously lacking in coconut flavor.
We also enjoyed peppery pappads (flatbreads) and the accompanying condiments of curry pickle and mango chutney. The breads - naan (cooked in the clay oven called a tandoor ) and onion kulcha (stuffed with sautM-ied onions and spices) - were good, but slightly drier and less flavorful than the best of their class.
Chicken soup, which had some promise from its description on the menu ("made with garlic, ginger and cardamom"), was salty and forgettable.
For entrees, we tried a couple of favorites - chicken tikka masala and chicken saag - and a couple of specials - Kashmiri rack of lamb and tandoori salmon. Chicken tikka masala is a classic Indian dish that consists of boneless chicken pieces broiled in the tandoor and then served with sauce over rice. The chicken chunks were firm but tender, and the sauce was delightfully flavored with butter, green Indian spices and tomatoes.
Chicken saag is another classic Indian dish - chicken chunks served in a creamy spinach sauce. Although the spinach was too salty, it had pleasant flavors of coriander and curry. Unlike the chicken tikka masala, the chicken here was less chunky and more random - some of it was even shredded.
We are big fans of the rich flavor and lovely red color the tandoor clay oven gives classic Indian dishes made with lamb or chicken. So, although we'd never had salmon in an Indian restaurant, we decided to try the tandoori salmon, a special, on our waiter's recommendation. The portion of salmon was generous and tender, but the fish hadn't been left in the tandoor long enough for the oven to impart its unique flavors - no doubt to avoid overcooking. In the end, it was a tasty dish, but nothing unusual.
Overcooking was most certainly the problem with rack of lamb, another special of the evening. Tough and tasteless, the meat was served under a great heap of onions and peppers that helped considerably.
All of the entrees were served with basmati rice, the bergamot-scented king of rice, and there was enough of everything left over for us to have snacks the next day.
For workday lunches, the Indian CafM-i serves an all-you-can-eat buffet (for $7.95) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and we assume that people who work in the neighborhood will be glad to see it. The restaurant also has free delivery seven days a week.
With the Mechanic Theatre nearly right around the corner, we plan to combine a theater trip with a return to the Indian CafM-i. The restaurant has potential, and, in a month or two, it may live up to it.
The Indian Cafe
201 N. Charles St. 410-539-5589 Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Prices: Appetizers $5.95 to $8.95; entrees $14.95 to $24.95
Food: ** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *