Indus Indian Herbal Cuisine in West Palm Beach: The Lamb Is Delicious, but God, the Veggies Are Exquisite
"Eat your vegetables!"
Who among us has made it out of childhood without having Mom drill that classic little nugget straight into our brainpans? It's right up there with "Go clean your room," "Wait till your father gets home," and "If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you jump off it too?"
Well, Mom, I probably would, just so I don't have to hear another billion clichés before I turn 50.
I'll bet Indian moms never had to smack their kids about the ears to get them to eat their veggies, though. Of course, Indian kids didn't have to endure the indignities most Western moms inflicted on their own kids' palates, not to mention on those poor, defenseless little vegetables. Green beans cooked to gray with the texture of decaying flesh, asparagus that stunk like vegetal excrement, peas and carrots poured frozen out of a box and immersed in the vile slime of margarine.
No, Indian kids got the good stuff. Eggplant slow-roasted and seasoned to become faintly smoky, deeply spicy vegetable silk; cauliflower cut in thin, flowery slabs, lightly battered and crisply fried; spinach gently cooked and puréed into sauces richer than the House of Saud, more elegant than an Armani tux.
"Why, yes, Mom. I will have another helping of that delicious baingan bartha, thank you very much."
Which brings us to Indus Indian Herbal Cuisine. This somewhat incongruous-looking restaurant — incongruous because the dining room still retains the generic American bistro look of its predecessor — is hardly an outpost of PETA's bin Laden-like vegetable fetishism. In fact, perhaps the best dish on the menu is chunks of fork-tender lamb stewed in a spinach-based sauce so indecently rich and luxurious that it's the culinary equivalent of being anointed with warm body oil while wearing a floor-length mink coat. But if you're now an adult who has reacted to all those years of nagging by vowing that the only vegetable to pass your lips will be beer (because, after all, it is made from hops), then the vegetarian and — horrors! — even vegan dishes at Indus may very well change your mind.
I know what my fellow meat-eaters are thinking. When earnest cabbageheads push their tofu and sprouts and insist "You won't miss the meat," it's about as believable as a lifelong virgin swearing he couldn't possibly be tempted by three days of wild, sweaty sex with a boxful of vibrators and a roomful of coked-out porn stars. Still, what Indus so admirably demonstrates is that even the most humble Indian restaurant has a way with vegetables that eludes virtually all of its vegetarian-slash-vegan Western counterparts, whose prevailing philosophy seems to be that customers must not only wear the hair shirt of meatlessness but dine on it too.
Thus, the great appeal of Indus (and, frankly, any good Indian restaurant) is that you can devour all manner of vegetables in an almost infinite number of delectable and inventive guises — sacrificing neither flavor nor texture in the bargain — and also satisfy your basest carnivorous cravings. You don't have to miss the meat.
But you should at least try the veggies. Perhaps the chili gobi ($6.99), that knockout cauliflower dish I mentioned earlier. Simply slice the florets thin, coat them with a spiced-up batter, fry them to a greaseless crunch, then submerse them in a mild, tangy, vaguely sweet 'n' sour sauce of chilies, ginger, garlic, and tomatoes. Or perhaps a pair of vegan samosas ($3.99), crisp little pastry packets filled with cumin and coriander-spiked potatoes.
Vegetarian dishes also figure prominently in Indus' buffet lunch, a ridiculously good deal for an all-you-can-shovel $9.99 ($10.99 on week-ends). There's rajma masala, a North Indian specialty: kidney beans typically slow-cooked with the classic onions/chilies/ginger/garlic/cumin quintumvirate, which allows them to soak up all those lusty flavors and acquire an uncommonly plush, almost molten texture. There's dum aloo, which does for potatoes what rajma does for beans, except in a lovingly spiced sauce with a pronounced herbal character.
There's sambar, a South Indian lentil and vegetable stew; and vegetable poriyal, a so-called "dry curry" of green beans, carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes. There are silver-dollar-sized lentil cakes that taste terrific when swiped through a verdant, subtly spicy mint-cilantro chutney; and masala fish, pan-fried fillets of flaky whitefish with a golden, five-spice-infused batter jacket. With all of them, you get a complimentary basket of garlic- and scallion-bedecked naan that's God's way of telling you to mop up every saucy drop. (At dinner, however, you can dispense with Indus' papadam, which is God's way of saying even $1.99 is too much to spend for lentil flour wafers the wrong side of stale.)
By now perhaps you are missing the meat. Never fear. Lunchtime offerings also include a small mountain of tandoori chicken legs, the succulent appendages given a thick coating of brick-red spice paste that ignites a slow conflagration in your mouth, then roasted tender and juicy in the blazing-hot tandoor oven. More carnivorous pleasure comes in the manner of chicken tikka masala, fat chunks of breast meat that miraculously are not overcooked despite waiting around in a chafing dish, all smothered in a luscious, elaborately seasoned, tomato-based cream sauce.
Not surprisingly, curries are a big deal at Indus, especially at dinner, where the restaurant takes a DIY approach while offering different versions from all around the Indian subcontinent. Pick your style of curry, then pick your protein, from cheese and assorted veggies to chicken, lamb, goat, fish, shrimp, and lobster.
Madras curry ($12.99) is probably the most familiar, an unctuous coconut milk-ennobled sauce redolent of sweet spices over a base of onions, ginger, and tomatoes. Here you will miss the meat, as veggies tend to get lost amid the riot of spices. (Heat levels, by the way, are DIY as well, ranging from mild to medium, American hot to Indian hot. American hot is only mildly inflammatory; to the average Indian palate, it would be no more ferocious than cream of wheat.)
Vindaloo, the fiery, vinegar-tinged curry of the Goa region, is here neither particularly tart nor fiery, though bumping the heat level from American hot to Indian hot might bump up the interest too. But with overcooked shrimp and potatoes ($22.99), it's just a disappointment. Palak masala ($15.99), though, is anything but. In fact, it's stupid, smack yo' mama delicious, with butter-tender cubes of lamb submerged in a palate-tingling sauce smoothed out by cream and puréed spinach that manages to be explosive and elegant at the same time, like a lit M-80 hiding in a Lalique vase.
Indian desserts are another matter. Even sweets-crazed Americans, who would normally eat dirt if it were covered with chocolate, have no trouble passing on India's assortment of sugary treats. So Indus' gulab jamun ($4.99) — the lone dessert available on a pair of visits — was an unexpected delight: Indian-style donut holes made from cottage cheese and wheat flour and soaked in a beguiling cardamom-rose-saffron syrup. I ate every one. But I'd still rather have another helping of veggies.
Mom would be so proud.
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