REVIEW: It’s quiet in here….too quiet

India Village
11835 St. Albert Trail

On a certain level, an experience with cuisine from another culture engenders in each of us a sense of discovery, like a vacation in our own backyard.

The illusion is best maintained when the quality of the dining experience is unassailable. Pungent, delicious cooking rich in flavour, texture and hue, complimentary beverages and fine desserts are essential.

Equally so? The right environment. A fine meal can do much to render restaurant aesthetics moot, but a really discouraging environment, conversely, can make a person forget even the most sumptuous of suppers.

With these guides in mind, consider India Village, Edmonton’s latest addition to the growing world phenom that is the takeout curry house, as weighing more towards the former than the latter: its food is quite delicious, and it almost helps one ignore a dining room ambiance that, at best, could be described as “awkwardly quiet.”

Perhaps, as is the case with many family owned, takeout-dependent operations, India Village is merely under-capitalized. After all, enough work has been done to the interior of the small strip mall location off the St. Albert Trail traffic circle to demonstrate serious long-range intent. The walls are a pleasing dark green, the tables amply spaced, the front-of-house slightly separated from the rest of the room.

In every other respect, however, this trip to India is kind of like discovering a really good meal at the Mumbai International Airport, then never leaving its concrete confines. There’s just not much else to distract. No art, no design concept … and almost no sound.

What little music there is comes from a small speaker somewhere in the back of the room and, coupled with high ceilings, the dining room is rendered eerily silent. With just three couples at the dozen or so tables, it was hard to not hear each other’s conversations. When a baby at the next table began to vociferously protest the ongoing pain that is life by screaming at the top of his lungs, it was like someone had plugged in a PA system, handed the tyke the Mic and rammed the volume past 11. On some plane of netherwordly torture, someone who was very bad in this life has to listen to that sound endlessly.

When people weren’t whispering, it was worse: ever see the dinner scene from a movie involving a monastery? It put a benedictine vow of silence to shame. That’s a different type of damnation, the defeaning silence, nothing reaching your ears save the grinding if your own teeth and, perhaps, a mildly irritating case of TMJ.

Mind you, if the food down below were this good, an eternity of damnation wouldn’t be entirely a loss. While the portions were more sane than the gargantuan shovel-loads offered by many restaurants in the present age, the textures and flavours among an otherwise all-too-familiar menu lineup of offerings were large and in charge.

East Indian cuisine is an interesting beast. It’s the tendency of any reasonably astute diner to wonder, for example, how legitimate the cultural extraction a plate of beef curry could be when Hindus revere the cow as sacred and are often vegetarians.

Then there is the question of regionalization: most North American restaurants offer a broad sampling of repeat favourites from across India’s many regions and dietary subcultures. But with cooks coming from disparate regions, each prepares them slightly differently.

The first issue is easily answered: most of the spices that make up the core of Indian cooking (and the key ingredients in the ‘Garam Masala’ blended spice that underlies nearly all of it) were being used in the region more than 3,000 years ago, when beef was commonly consumed. So technically, beef curry is as legitimately Indian as anything that has come since.

The second, however, is key to every Indian dining experience. If a chef is not able to assimilate dishes from regions other than his home and prepare them properly, the end result will a typically palate-numbing affair.

India Village has fewer overall selections than other local Indian restaurants, but pays attention to tradition. Most are cooked in the style of the Kashmiri and Punjab regions, and the beef gravy for the curry was heavy on fragrant, spiced oil, yet still fantastically textured.

The vegetable somosas — a multi-national Asian tradition — followed the typical potatoes and peas approach of every other North American East Indian restaurant but came in a larger, lighter pastry stuffed to maximum density and spiced perfectly. Two are almost a meal unto themselves and they were, quite simply, the tastiest somosas in the city.

For those who favour a milder approach to their entree, the Chicken Korma was positively benign on the heat side and very creamy, but still deeply flavourful, with strong elements of cumin and coriander.

The naan bread was thicker than usual, suggesting extra dairy in the prep, a welcome step up from the norm.

The restaurant offers a handful of dessert offerings as well, including traditional rice pudding. Dinner for two, with appetizer, tip and drinks, was about $45.

Perhaps, without benefit of investment capital, the restaurant will find and maintain its niche as principally a place to pick up a great takeout dinner. Its owner may already have decided that, positioned next to a liquor store and a punk bar, it’s going to struggle to impress as a haven of fine dining.

But given the dining options in North central Edmonton, it would be nice to see India Village continue to grow, and become more than just a good — albeit, monastically quiet — culinary vacation.