Friday, January 16, 2009

Eating up a sweat

I like to think that I'm fairly open-minded when it comes to food. I'm generally open to giving things a try, even if it sounds a little quirky (offal aside). I love trying new cuisines and restaurants which might explain why I sometimes struggle to find restaurants to go to with my family. Mum is a little sensitive in her eating habits, for reasons of health and preference. Dad is a creature of habit, a stubborn one at that. My favourite places to go to with friends are mostly not to parents' liking so picking a restaurant is normally a very drawn out process, often ending with takeaway from local Asian eateries.

On this particular outing (after a night of procrastination) I took the bold step of telling the family where we would be going - within a certain mandate of " no steak or seafood restaurants". We headed to Glebe for Darbar which I had been meaning to try after walking and/or driving past many a time. Early-ish on a Thursday night the restaurant had two tables of two, but hosted a constant stream throughout the evening.

The menu is extensive with banquet options, veg and non veg entrees, three mains sections, rice, sides, breads and desserts - and for someone with decision-making deficiencies and limited experience with Indian cuisine, it can be quite daunting. Starting with the easy stuff, I have a mango lassi which I know will come in handy when the spice gets a little too much for the tastebuds.

Mango lassi

The lassi is divine - sweet with the distinct taste of thick, creamy yoghurt sprinkled with some pistachio and with little bits of ginger throughout. It's also a generous serve that gets me all the way through to dessert and in fact becomes my dessert. Papadums with a minty yoghurt sauce also arrive at the table for our nibbling.


After a few minutes of independent contemplation, ordering becomes a group task. We throw around poorly pronounced Indian words, speculate about the size of dishes and our appetites, ooh-and-aah over new exotic dishes and reminisce about dishes at that restaurant up the coast that we all went to 12 years ago. My last experience at an Indian eatery with friends reminded me that mains can be deceptively large; that is, they look small but after entrees and copious amounts of carbohydrates (breads and rice) and water, can be filling. As such we share the non-veg mix platter as an entree, promising tasty bits of meat to satisfy any steak fiend.

Non-veg mix platter: lamb cutlets, khass sheek kebab and chicken malai tikka

The platter comes out surprisingly monotone: it all looks like tandoori. The rocket salad on the side is another surprise but a welcome one for this rocket addict. The lamb cutlets are tender and juicy - their French-trimmed bones wrapped in a foil 'handle'. The kebabs are a delightful mince of lamb with coriander accents, the texture firmer than an average sausage and oh-so flavoursome, finished in the tandoor oven explaining its colour appearance. And the chicken, with a squeeze of lemon, is as good as expected.

With many Western cuisine restaurants I tend to favour entree dishes over mains. They seem more exciting, more intricate and detailed with flavours. This isn't the case tonight as I'm looking forward to the curries and sauces, which themselves will be a myriad of flavours and ingredients. On the sidelines and ready to go we have saffron basmati rice, garlic naan and tandoori roti.

Tandoori roti (left) and garlic naan (right)

The roti is crispier than the naan, totally different to the Malaysian style roti that's even thinner and fluffy and chewy. The naan is fresh and soft with a liberal sprinkling of chopped garlic - not sure mints or gum will cover this, but I'm with the family so that's fine by all of us. For mains we've elected a lamb dish, a chicken, a fish and a vegie. We tried to go for variety and I think we achieved that, with a range of spicy, sweet, nutty and sour flavours coming through in each of the dishes.

Lamb vindaloo

Starting with Dad's request: the lamb vindaloo. The menu tells me that the word vindaloo comes from Portugese, meaning vinegar and garlic. I can taste the garlic, not so much the vinegar, and an excess of salt. The taste is mild to start, with the spice kick coming in subsequent tastes. There are variously-sized chunks of lamb (or is it beef?) that are not chewy, but not a soft tender texture either. Not my favourite dish, which Dad doesn't have a problem with.

Nellore fish curry

My pick is the fish curry, as it's not something I'd commonly have at home or even contemplate making. Darbar's version comes with "seasonal fish" though we're not told what it is. It's white, boneless and the fillets were quite thick, so your guess is as good as mine. This sauce is sweet with a sour twinge, most likely from the tamarind. Great to dip roti and naan, and packing just the right amount of heat, although Mum found this dish to be the spiciest.

Chicken chukka

Next main is brother's pick of the chicken chukka which is served dry, well, relatively dry. At this point the coriander/tomato garnish is looking a bit unoriginal but it's not all about that, I guess. The chicken pieces are moist and the sauce tasty - too many spice flavours to even mention but a definite winner on the table.

Gutti vankai (stuffed eggplant)

Last but not least is the vegetarian dish, holding its own up against bird, mammal and fish. Yes, more greenery and tomato garnish but a totally different look and taste to the other dishes. The colour initially gives an indication of the taste - it's nutty. The menu tells me cashew, peanut, sesame and coconut. It's almost a little overpoweringly nutty, with the eggplant unable to break through at all. I personally love the natural subtle flavour of eggplant so am a little overwhelmed by the nuttiness, although my brother calls it an "interesting" sauce.

I absolutely love the first tastes of each dish. After about the fifth or sixth mouthful the tongue starts to signal for help. It tingles a little, cheeks are going a bit pink and little droplets of sweat are forming on noses all round. Roti and naan are dipped into sauces in the hope that carbs can lessen the heat. Water glasses are refilled and I even sip the lassi for limited relief. Breaks from eating are being taken for heads and tongues to cool, though this doesn't really work.

Towards the end some on the table look like they've been outdoors in the light rain - a head somewhat drenched in water. My uncontrollable laughter at this point is not helping either. We look like we've just had a workout, what with the huffing and puffing, fanning and sweaty looks. It's all good fun, and mostly satisfactory food as well. Nothing a quick visit to the restroom won't fix.

Darbar Fine Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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