With Indian food, it's all about spices. Having grown up on Mexican chillies, I arrived at the Darbar Indian restaurant ready for a spicy Eastern adventure to take me away from mayonnaise, sour cream, and sausages, at least for one night. Tucked away in the Sputnik Hotel on Leninsky Prospect, the often jam packed restaurant has been given five stars by members of Moscow's Indian community, and Russians who want the real thing. The service was excellent, the ambiance relaxing, and it was a relief to taste ethnic food that hadn't been Russianized to a major degree.
That doesn't mean I was ready to touch the unbelievably spicy mango pickles that almost immediately appeared along with the papad - flat crisps made from a dough of crushed chick peas-on the table as soon a I sat down. I chose instead to dip the crisps into a mint sauce while I contemplated the massive array of Northern and Southern Indian dishes on the menu.
Fortunately, I had a dinner companion who explained the difference between a milkshake (yes, this was on the menu as well), the baked tandoor dishes and the curries, and just why Indian food does not include pork.
For appetizers we ordered the papdi chaat, more of the crisps, with yoghurt tamarind sauce and boiled potatoes. The combination crisp was delightful, and the yoghurt sauce delicate. For the main dishes, we settled on the Chicken Tikka ($10), a red colored tandoor baked chicken sans the bones, Gosht Shahi Korma ($14), boneless pieces of lamb cooked in cashew nut gravy, malai kofta, ($11) mashed soft cottage cheese scoops stuffed with dry fruits and more cashew gravy, lacha parantha, ($2) tandoor baked bread and rice.
We could have substituted tandoori murg for the tikka chicken, the only difference being that the former has bones, but since Indian food is traditionally eaten with hands, many Russian clients appreciate the deboning process. I followed the restaurant's advice and tried to eat the food with broken off pieces of bread, but was quickly forced to resort to a fork.
In between bites, Darbar's manager invited me to tour the kitchen, which was an experience in and of itself. The Indian cooks proudly showed off their bright array of Indian spices, but more importantly, their custom built tandoori oven where all of the tandoor food is baked. The tiled oven reminded me of a clay kiln, and one cook promptly took a round of dough, expertly flattened it into a thin round, and plastered it onto the hot walls of the tandoori oven. Back in India, I was told, few families have such ovens in their house, but there are neighborhood tandoori shops which will cook food on demand.
For desert the restaurant recommended Gulab Jamun, fried dumplings with nuts and saffron served in sugar syrup.
Darbar also serves value-for-money business lunch ($8) from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily.