The cuisine of India is as diverse and complex as the country itself. It reflects thousands of years of different ideas, ingredients and invasions. From religious principles, among which includes the belief that the cow is sacred, to the sophisticated treatment of meat in the northern part of India with a tandoor, or clay oven, an Indian restaurant's menu is a journey through the ages.
The influences of such civilizations as China, Greece, Arabia, Persia and Central Asia have uniquely contributed to cooking in India. Even curry, which we often characterize as spicy and hot, did not receive the added boost from hot peppers until chilies were brought back from the New World in the 16th century. Other spices such as mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, coriander, white pepper, turmeric are more common.The Star of India restaurant, open a little more than two months in downtown Salt Lake City, reflects this flavor-filled journey through history. The emphasis is northern Indian food, though there are dishes from the southern section of India, which feature vegetarian and golden curry sauces. We found the special tandoor dishes the most appealing and skillfully prepared.
Tandoor means oven. Customarily it is a large, long earthenware pot embedded in clay and earth. It is filled with charcoal to make the oven red hot. Different meats as well as seafood and Indian breads are placed in the tandoor for baking, usually on long skewers.
We literally feasted on the chef's special tali ($15.95), a variety of sizzling meats and shrimp, served atop a snowy blanket of sauteed onions. The grilled meats that came with the dinner include tandoori chicken, a quarter skinless chicken marinated and seasoned with garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, chili, yogurt and lemons. It was wonderfully seasoned and perfectly tender.
The chicken tikka, a boneless breast, was also luscious. Other succulent meats included chunks of lamb, or boti kabab, and two large juicy prawns. The seekh kabab, minced lamb blended with chopped onions and other spices (resembling an elongated meat ball), was also tasty, though somewhat dry.
The special thali dinner could easily satisfy two diners. In addition to the meats, it comes with nan, or chewy, thick round bread; mattar paneer, peas cooked with chunks of farmer's cheese in a tomato sauce; raita, a cold salad of yogurt blended with cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and mint; and rice.
The extensive menu at the Star of India is a broad sampling of traditional dishes, including several soups, appetizers, breads, lamb, chicken and vegetable curries priced from $6 for the vegetarian dishes to $10 for shrimp masala.
Dishes that caught our eye include the maharaja shrimp biryani, tandoori prawns and cauliflower cooked with herbs, Basamati rice and nuts and garnished with cheese and raisins; makhni chicken ($8.75), tandoori chicken prepared with a fresh tomato and butter sauce; and rogan josh ($8.50), cubes of lamb cooked with onions, tomato sauce and garam masala, a traditional spice blend consisting of coriander, cinnamon, peppercorns, nutmeg, cu-min, cloves and cardamom.
Besides the thali assortment, we tried the appetizer plate for two ($4.95), a combination of pakora or deep-fried sweet potato slices; pakoras, a stuffed and fried dough skin filled with vegetables; two seekh kababs; and spicy grilled chicken wings. Each was more appetizing when dunked in either of two chutney sauces. The green cilantro sauce was especially good. The other entree we tried was a marked contrast in color and texture to the grilled meats. The lamb saagwala ($8.50) is chunks of lamb sauteed and simmered in a creamy spinach sauce. It was very good; but the tandoor specials were the clear favorites.
The Star of India is located in a place that for years housed the Casa Grande Mexican restaurant, notable because the owner of the Red Iguana started his career there with his parents. For a short time it was a Persian restaurant and then another Mexican eatery.
Considering the different forces that have converged over time to forge Indian cooking and cuisine, the Star of India is in the right place.
Rating: * * * *
Star of India, 177 E. 200 South, 363-7555. Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m. until 10, seven days a week. Accepts check with guarantee card; no credit cards.