Given the number of different regions in India and the complexity of their cuisines, it's surprising how alike the menus of Baltimore's Indian restaurants are. You would think there are only about 10 Indian dishes in the whole world: vegetable samosas, lamb saag, tandoori chicken -- you get the idea. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean. And for some reason, they all have lunch buffets, which I don't think of as particularly Indian, but that's another story.
Baltimore's highest profile Indian restaurant, the Ambassador, surprised people when it opened in 1997 because it was different. It "plated" the food rather than serving it family style, and some of its dishes were quite unusual. It also had a more formal setting and better wine list, and was more expensive than other Indian restaurants in town.
In a roundabout way, I'm getting to Banjara, a nice little place that's been quietly serving curries and such in Federal Hill for more than a decade. It was the parent restaurant of the Ambassador, before the owners sold Banjara five years ago. Much of the menu remains the same under the new ownership, so you may have a nagging sense of deja vu if you've been to the Ambassador recently. Banjara's food, though, is served family-style except for the four Chef's Recommendations, which arrive on individual plates with rice pilaf and creamed spinach -- and which cost quite a bit more than the rest of the dinners. (They do come with soup or salad.)
Banjara has settled into its role of neighborhood restaurant comfortably. The storefront dining room has been decorated cheerfully in shades of lobster bisque and burgundy, with lots of mirrors to open up the space. The tables are glass-topped over flowery cloths. It isn't the warmest dining room I've been in this winter, which makes the fact that the kitchen heated our plates before they were brought to the table particularly welcome. This time of year, soups are a good choice, such as the smooth, lentil-based mulligatawny, not only because they are rich and subtly spiced, but also because they arrive very hot.
In spite of their marinade of yogurt and spices, meats cooked in the tandoori oven often come out a bit dry for American tastes. Banjara combats that by serving the Tandoori Grand Platter with a bowl of smoothly spiced masala sauce. The platter gave us a chance to sample a variety of meats and shrimp cooked in the oven, including my favorite, minced lamb meatballs (actually cylinders) on a skewer. The red-edged tandoori chicken -- more succulent than when it was served alone -- also turned up in a salad tossed with chickpeas, mango powder and tamarind sauce. It's a summer favorite that works very well as an appetizer.
Banjara has the blowtorch dishes like lamb vindaloo, but there are also some very mild ones, such as a boneless breast of chicken with a delicate sauce of cream and sliced almonds. Shrimp Adrak, one of the plated dishes, falls somewhere in between. The shrimp are huge, marinated in lime juice and spices and then grilled. Either they or the creamed spinach on the plate with them had a delayed kick. Unfortunately, they arrived undercooked, but were whisked away and quickly replaced -- the second time round they were fine. That mattered less than it normally would because there was plenty to eat on the table while we waited for them. And I'm always happy not to have seafood that's overcooked and dry.
Crisp, spicy pappadams come with the meal, along with coriander chutney, tamarind sauce and pickle. We upped our carb quota with naan, unleavened bread stuffed with dried fruits and nuts, and spicy samosas, fried dumplings stuffed with potatoes and peas. They arrived on the same plate with a little dish of mango chutney. A bowl of raita, yogurt with chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, added a soothing note.
Desserts are limited to the classics, like gulab jaman. These are the fried milk powder balls in sugar syrup that are better than their description sounds. Other choices include mango or coconut ice cream made with condensed milk or rice pudding. I'd stick to the warm gulab jaman, whose intense sweetness balanced the spices that came before nicely, or end your meal with chai, the sweet, spicy, milky Indian tea.
Banjara is an amiable restaurant that delivers a satisfying meal with courteous and attentive service. It's probably not head and shoulders over your favorite Indian restaurant, but if you don't happen to have one, it's well worth giving this one a try.
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 1017 S. Charles St., Federal Hill
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$6.95; main courses, $8.95-$19.95
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *