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Restaurant Reviews

Kerala Killer

Coral Springs isn't exactly inundated with ethnic dining options — if the suburban west Broward community of young families and Fort Lauderdale commuters had an official restaurant, it would be Olive Garden, with Taco Bell a strong second. But in the past two years the chain-plagued city has seen a handful of independent ethnic eateries creep in and win over a local crowd. Newest in this crop is the two-month-old India Garden. Its Mumbai-sized menu is a bit onerous, but it doesn't lack ambition.

That ambition comes by way of India Garden co-owner Cigil Palackalody, a Keralese chef who spent 12 years training with one of India's most renowned hospitality chains, Oberoi Hotels. Palackalody wanted to create a restaurant where the burgeoning Indian community in Coral Springs could dine on regional cuisine that doesn't just start and stop in Punjab, but takes a meandering path through the southern states of Kerala and Portuguese-influenced Goa, with entire portions of the menu dedicated to Indo-Chinese and Sri Lankan cuisine. You'll find familiar dishes in tikki masala, vindaloo, and korma alongside duck vellayappam flavored with toddy (rice pancake with coconut vinegar), kingfish moilee, cashew-filled chettinadu, pomfret fry, Manchurian chicken, and kottu, a popular street food among club-going Sri Lankans. Yet the sheer number of these dishes, over a staggering 130, bogs down both the service and the kitchen.

On numerous visits the overwhelming problem was consistency. Samosas, an Indian staple, at times were perfectly balanced and spicy, other times a bland mess of potato and peas. Many items arrived less opulent than advertised (the menu is smartly descriptive; always a plus in an ethnic joint), like tamarind eggplant, which was supposed to come layered with onion, yogurt, and chickpeas but consisted of just four unappealing, thin slices of eggplant dressed with typical tamarind chutney; or paneer shashlik, tandoor-cooked cheese skewered with green peppers and pineapple served over saffron rice — but it lacked the pineapple or rice. There are mistakes, and then there's the unforgivable, like when kalmi kabobs, marinated tandoor chicken wings beautifully spiced with garam masala and cumin, come out on a cold plate instead of a sizzling platter, the julienne of onions and peppers tepid and limp instead of hot and savory.

This isn't to say it's all bad. Goan fish curry, a dish as infused with hints of Portugal as coastal India, was loaded with hearty chunks of king mackerel in a piquant, vibrant red sauce that lingered on the tongue pleasantly. I'd also return indefinitely for the salt lassi, the crisp dosai, or the expansive weekend buffet. Unfortunately, too many orders (whole red snapper, Cornish hen, Sri Lankan curry with lemongrass and mustard) earned a response of "not tonight."

Which leads to the saddest bit of all: Missed opportunity. I'd empty my calendar permanently for a place that served true regional Indian — not dumbed down for the Olive Garden crowd — if the food delivered on its promise. If ambition gave way to logic, Palackalody and crew would allow their meals to sing India's praises by cutting the menu in half, specializing, and really making sure they got each dish right. That's a lot of ifs, but here's hoping they get it done. I'm definitely in their corner.

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John Linn

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