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Star of India tones down the spice, amps up the flavor

for The Brooklyn Paper
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One problem that Indian restaurants in some Brooklyn neighborhoods face is diner apprehension - because we’ve suffered through so many dumbed-down versions of authentic Indian cooking we approach a meal expecting disappointment.

Rather than having our hopes dashed, some of us will travel to restaurants far from our homes that cater to Indian clientele. If it’s good enough for them, we reason it’s good enough for us.

Deciding what to serve to a non-Indian population and how hot to serve it is a conundrum for Indian restaurateurs. If chefs dole out dishes that are suitable for their own palates, they risk diners finding their cooking intolerably strong and spicy.

Star of India, on Fifth Avenue at President Street in Park Slope, has established an admirable middle ground. Lovers of mild flavors and subtle heat will be amply rewarded; those who prefer more dynamic spicing will have options, too, as long as searing heat isn’t a prerequisite.

The chef and owner of Star of India is Miah Tazu, who has cooked in the kitchens of Joy India and Krian in Manhattan. His sons, Khalil and Mizmijan, work the pleasant but nondescript dining room.

They wait a respectful few minutes before inquiring, "Do you like that?"

"Yes," was my answer to nearly everything.

I’d say, "Yes," again, to the samosas, which resemble tiny tents made of pastry. In the wrong hands, these appetizers can be as leaden as last week’s meatloaf. Tazu’s samosas are light and crisp. The vegetarian samosa is filled with tender potatoes, corn kernels and peas. Minced beef and peas make a rewarding savory version. The samosas are delicately perfumed with just enough garlic and ginger to enhance the ingredients.

With the appetizers comes a tray with three little dishes of condiments: a bright green sauce of cilantro and garlic; a puddle of fudge-colored tamarind puree; and chopped onions laced with chilies. A little drizzle of the cilantro sauce (which I wished were hotter), or a few of the spicy, chili-laced onions give the samosas a little kick.

Among the first courses is a banana pakora that belongs on the dessert menu. A couple of slices of banana become the center of a large ball of sweet dough that is then deep-fried.

"Kids love them," Khalil said. I’m not surprised. The pakora are sweet and heavy - like a Dunkin’ Donuts hole - not terrible, just pointless.

I had better luck with the curries. Vegetable "shag," a stew of vegetables in a lightly spiced sauce, can be as bland as baby food. Tazu’s mushroom "shag," a combination of fresh mushrooms and spinach, is especially good. The mushrooms were firm and plentiful; the spinach fresh and its taste did not get lost in the sauce.

Fluffy basmati rice is served with the entrees - a practice that should be adopted by many Indian restaurateurs who charge extra for rice.

The shrimp curry was almost as good as the delicious ginger curry made with lamb. The shrimp curry built heat slowly. First the sweetness of tomatoes, then the warmth of ginger and cardamom, and finally a little tingle of chili left a warm glow in my mouth. Slivers of fresh ginger strewn atop tender chunks of lamb added a sharp tang to the lamb curry’s bright, complex sauce.

The vindaloo, considered the spiciest of Indian dishes, was a one-note affair. Order the chicken vindaloo, and you’ll receive a dish that tastes like and resembles Campbell’s tomato soup but with less personality. The sauce is hot, but the zing is on the surface.

With the curries, I recommend a glass of the mango lassi. Made from fresh mango and yogurt the drink is a sophisticated smoothie with the same cooling effect as a dollop of sour cream on a bowl of chili.

If you want wine, Star of India offers two by the glass: a decent Shiraz, with enough oomph to stand up to the dishes’ spices, and an acceptable Chardonnay. Several beers are available including Kingfisher, Taj Mahal and Brooklyn Lager.

The star of the dessert roundup was the rice pudding. It was soupier than diner renditions and a bit too sweet at first bite, but its milky taste had a trace of almond flavoring and a few ground almonds enhanced its texture.

"Gulab Jaman" is a deep-fried ball of sweet dough that sits in a puddle of cardamom syrup. The dough works like a sponge absorbing the syrup until it’s completely soaked through. It looks like an odd concoction dreamed up by someone with experience in other areas of the kitchen, but the dessert is more sophisticated than you’d expect and not as sweet as it sounds.

Will you run out of Star of India crying, "Eureka! I’ve eaten the best Indian food!"? I doubt it. But sometimes finding an Indian restaurant close to home, where dishes are made with care, is all you need.

 

Star of India (232 Fifth Ave. between President and Carroll streets) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner’s Club and Discover. Entrees: $8.50-$15. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. Delivery is available in surrounding neighborhoods. For information, call (718) 638-0555 or 638-5533.

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