Here are the three most important things to know about King's Kabab. One, kebabs make up only a portion of the menu. Two, order the non-vegetarian dhakai thali for a good sample of what the restaurant has to offer. Three, make sure there's a full glass of water on the table before you dig in.
King's Kabab, which opened last May in Columbia's King's Contrivance village center, is really a traditional Indian restaurant, not a kebab house, and offers the usual assortment of curries, masalas, vindaloos, tandooris and, yes, kebabs. Indian beers and a few wines are also available, and owner Anthony Gomes said he plans to expand the wine offerings.
The small dining room is clean and light, with tapestries and artifacts gracing the purple walls, quite a transformation from the High's dairy store that was once at the site.
Soft Indian music plays as diners are served by owner Gomes and his brother, Manuel Gomes, who manage to be attentive without hovering. They clearly care about the food they are serving, and they delight in describing every dish.
We started with vegetarian samosas, plump, greaseless packets of fried pastry filled with curry-accented potatoes and peas. This was followed by mini murgh tiki, small chunks of flavorful but not particularly moist tandoori chicken; and kalthi kebab, skewered lamb with a savory kick. The crunchy, tangy salad that garnished each appetizer plate was a nice bonus.
For the main course, we opted for the tandoori salmon, the dhakai thali and the murgh korma shahi, described on the menu as the "King of Curries, served at the courts of the mughal Emperors!" Who could say no to that? The King of Curries turned out to be a good choice, featuring tender chunks of chicken in an almost fruity golden yogurt-curry sauce enlivened by the occasional crunch of an almond sliver. We sopped up the sauce with King's Kabab Special Naan, which may have been sauteed with mushrooms, onions and garlic as the menu said, but tasted like regular naan to us.
The dhakai thali was an attractive presentation of two vegetable dishes, one chicken dish and one lamb dish, arranged around a bowl of raita made with cucumber and yogurt. Owner Gomes said he varies the assortment from night to night, but will accommodate specific requests. If we had known, we would have asked for a chicken dish other than the murgh korma shahi, since we already had a large dish of it on the table.
The curried lamb was flavorful, but every now and then I hit a pocket of spice so potent it made my eyes water. The same held true for a mixed vegetable dish called nav rattan sabzi. Good thing our water glasses were always topped off. The aloo gobi, a rich yellow medley of potatoes and cauliflower, was milder.
The tandoori salmon was flavorful and fresh, with a nice charred exterior, but a little dry. The main courses came with a silver tureen of beautiful gold basmati rice garnished with bits of fried onions.
For dessert, we were surprised to hear that chocolate cake was one of the options. Gomes said he often offers American-style sweets, even though they are not on the menu. Though the cake was not made on the premises, apple strudels and pies are, he said.
The layer cake, served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, was light, with a deep chocolate flavor. Mango ice cream was creamy and refreshing, and kheer khas, the Indian rice pudding, was rich and mild, topped with chewy golden raisins and slivers of pistachios and almonds.
All in all, King's Kabab is a nice place to eat Indian food without venturing out of the suburbs. Judging by the number of customers enjoying their meals on a recent Saturday night, we're not the only ones who think so.
Where: 8640 Guilford Road, Columbia
Open: For lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $2.95-$3.95; entrees $6.95-$14.95
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Excellent ****; Good ***; Fair **; Poor *