by Elissa Karg
Consider the entrées we ordered one weekday evening at Ashoka: Maharashtrian-style farsi bhaji — green beans cooked with freshly grated coconut in a thick, creamy sauce colored deep yellow by turmeric. The arched backs of the green beans surface above the golden sauce, like fish dancing in the sea. Bagara baigan, little round eggplants about the size of ping-pong balls, stuffed with peanut and sesame seed paste, served in tomato sauce seasoned with the tropical taste of tamarind. In the third dish, hyderabadi lamb, the tomato sauce was mediated with yogurt, giving it a creamier taste, but ignited with green chile peppers.
With more than 150 items on its menu, Ashoka wanders from the North — with tandoori-style cooking (in a clay oven), the warming spice blends like garam masala, and the delicious, chewy bread, naan, which is baked by slapping it on the inside wall of a hot tandoor until it blisters and chars — to the South, with more legume-based recipes and fiery spice blends. There are even sections of the menu devoted to Indian-Chinese food, a style with a following in India.
Indian cuisine is so delicious and so complex that it almost requires dining out. With a buffet lunch available for $7 ($8 on weekends), let the experts cook.
Owner Raveena Reddy grew up in the restaurant business; her father runs a hotel and restaurant in southern India. Six years ago she left a job as a DaimlerChrysler systems analyst and opened Ashoka with her husband, Bharath Reddy. “I wanted to do something to follow my father’s footsteps. My father is my inspiration,” Reddy says.
Popular appetizers include samosas (well-seasoned vegetables or meats wrapped in pastry, then fried) and pakoras, which are dipped in batter and fried. The chicken pakoras are marinated in masala spices, mildly flavored and delicious. We tried cut mirch, a light green chile stuffed with a blend of spices, onion and lemon, dipped in batter and fried. Hot, hot. But for all the deep-frying, nothing was greasy.
A bowl of mulligatawny blended lentils, coconut, tomatoes and curry leaves — surprisingly light, and so tasty that my bowl was expropriated by a 4-year-old at our table. She also scarfed up her mother’s chicken curry, shunning the age-appropriate chicken tikka (chunks of breast meat, marinated in yogurt and spices, baked in the tandoor and served on a sizzling platter) we ordered for her.
Instead of bread, a plate of pappad — brittle lentil crackers — is served with various chutneys. The crackers are spicy enough to discourage overeating. Basmati rice comes with most entrées, as does the flat bread, naan, which can also be ordered stuffed with garlic, nuts, or pineapple and cherries.
For an extra $2, most entrées are available as a thali platter, with little cups filled with vegetable curry, dahl (lentil soup), sambar (lentil curry), raita (a cool yogurt and cucumber salad) and a dessert. The one we tried was disappointing, and we passed on most of the extras after a bite or two. The soupy rice pudding made us look to other items on the dessert menu. Our 4-year-old thought she had gone to heaven with a mango lassi for dessert, and a serving of kulfi — an ice cream made by reducing milk on the stove before freezing — was light, exotic and delicious.
Full-service bar. If you’re ordering fiery dishes, a cold Indian beer is just the thing. Four types are available. Flying Horse, in a bottle big enough for two, is perfect.
Ashoka is located in a strip mall where you can eat a different cuisine every night of the week, from Thailand to Japan to Italy. Or stop by the gym for a 30-minute workout. Despite the postmodern setting, Ashoka is handsomely appointed with a burgundy color scheme. At least half the diners were Indian on both nights we were there, and the occasional bright sari added to the authenticity. Ashoka has a second location in Canton at 2100 Haggerty Rd. Open daily.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.