Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Travels to the Silk Road Grill.

UNLIKE ANY OTHER:  Sambosa at Silk Road Grill
  • UNLIKE ANY OTHER: Sambosa at Silk Road Grill
If you were to tell me there was a halfway decent Indian restaurant in Arkansas outside of the magical Indian mile in Little Rock (which includes Star of India, Amruth Authentic Indian Cuisine and Taj Mahal) I would be doubtful. Or at least, I woulda been. That is, until a few weeks ago.
Fort Smith — known for its healthy smattering of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants and for the indomitable Calico County — has its own couple of Indian joints that have recently opened. There are a couple… Curry Express — which turns out to also be R&R Curry Express, the Indian restaurant and barbecue joint slash convenience store on Rogers just outside of downtown — and Silk Road Grill.
I’ve had friends bugging me for a while about Silk Road. They know of my affection for Indian cuisine and my almost metabolic need for a good curry fix. But I was skeptical. I’ve been to bad Indian restaurants before — thankfully none here, but I do recall certain Memphian experiences I’d far rather forget.
Let’s just say my fears have been abolished.
Dropped in on Silk Road on a Monday afternoon after the lunch rush. Looked through the menus, waited and waited and waited… service was slow. I was trying not to let that cloud my thoughts, since I was ever so hungry and the place smelled fabulous.
So our waitress came over, and my dining companion asked for some mint chutney. She told him they were fresh out… but when she saw his disappointment she disappeared — without taking our order. She came back out a few minutes later and told us they were going to see what they could do.
She took our orders, but with some reservations. My dining companion asked for the Lamb Vindaloo and Curry combination and was told they didn’t have the curry but he could have the vindaloo. I ordered the Quabili Palau and Kofte combination and was told the Quabili Palau wasn’t available — but that I could substitute something else for it, so I asked for Chicken Qurma instead.
We placed our orders and waited. And waited. I’m apparently pretty patient, because 45 minutes passed while we were waiting for even a naan sighting. Then again, the other customers in the place were taking their time, too.
And then we had our first course delivered, an order of sambosa ($5.49) delivered with not just the cilantro chutney offered with it but with fresh mint chutney. Our waitress told us it was just something the chef had managed to whip up — but it was amazing, a nice puree of fresh mint and spices that was… it was awesome. I saw why my dining companion had insisted on it. Yet he still told me this wasn’t the exact chutney he’d had before.
The sambosa… frankly, with the description on the menu (“pastry triangles stuffed with potatoes, chick peas, scallions, ground beef and spices”) I was expecting more of the pre-made triangle samosas I’ve received elsewhere. Not these. Obviously hand-made, they were packed with a chunky green paste of the aforementioned items, far closer to the historical ideal of meat-in-a-pastry-pocket from the Hindustani regions of the subcontinent (think 17th Century Pakistan border) than what we get these days. The filling was delightfully complex with notes of cardamom and anise amongst those scallions and chick peas. And the mint chutney just elevated it.
Then there was the naan, which was a great departure from the almost yeasty naan I get around Central Arkansas. This was a coarse besan-type flatbread coated with a lacquering of warm ghee that pooled in its wrinkles and pockets. It tore in two layers, almost chapati-like. I wondered if it had inflated whilst in the tandoor.
There was also salad, a light romaine-and-tomato salad. But it seems weird to talk about salads when there was so much good Indian fare around.
I was so happy with the sambosa, naan and chutney I almost filled up on said items before our dishes arrived. And when they did arrive they were followed by the chef, who explained our dishes to us. The Lamb Vindaloo ($10.99), he explained, was originally a Portugese dish brought to India in the 17th Century and adopted  strongly in the southwestern state of Goa. The original dish, Carne de Vinha d’Alhos, was made with pork which just wouldn’t have done with the non-pork-consuming folks… this particular dish was less red than I have seen before, with the spices and such almost pureed into the sauce and no potatoes (I‘ve been told potatoes don‘t actually belong in the dish but sometimes get there because “aloo” means potato — don’t tell Paul, he’ll be heartbroken). It was scent-tifically spice-full with a heady dose of chillies and fennugreek seeds and probably a bit spicier than I would care for on any particular day.
I had chosen well, but I was also quite surprised. My favorite dish locally is Chicken Tikka Korma — I love the cashew-nut sauce and the flavors of the tandoor in my chicken, so this is a natural for me. The Chicken Qurma (Murgh Qurma more properly, actually presented that way on the menu, good for them, for $8.99) was not the dish I’d had before. The chicken was tandoor’d, lovingly roasted with a yogurt scent. It was encased in this magnificent sauce with so many layers of flavor… not just nutmeats but coconut milk, not just yogurt but fresh ginger and turmeric. It was delightful yet unlike any example of the dish I’d had before.  Our chef told us it was Murgh Shahi Qurma, the Shahi meaning “for the king,” which is why it included things that would have been expensive for the Mughlai empire like coconut, nuts and fresh spices. He mentioned the Afghani influence.
I have to admit, I was starting to get a crush on the chef… someone who cooked in an Indian restaurant who knew as much and probably more about historic Indian cuisine than I did. I was blown away.
And then there was the Kofte… not the usual lamb meatballs in tangy sauce I am used to but pliant long-stewed meatloaf balls of spice and lamb meat. Almost like pot roast in flavor. It’s hard to describe, frankly, to be completely just. But these were definitely not from some commercial preparation. They melted on the tongue.
I even have to mention the rice. It was cumin-scented rice, I kid you not, long grained but with tiny bits of cumin seed, enough to flavor it and make it a true compliment to the dishes I’d ordered. I also had a side dish of stewed squash that just about made me cry, but I am certainly going on too long about the whole thing, anyway.
Now, mind you, the waits had lengthened lunch from the expected hour to over two hours and I was behind the rest of the day. But I suspect a lot of that had to do with the chutney. I mean, the mint was fresh — startlingly fresh. I wonder if hearing about my dining companion’s insistence upon having the chutney if someone didn’t make a run to the store. It would explain part of the wait.
Then again, the other part would be that the dishes just took time, and I could buy that. I really could.
Silk Road doesn’t just do Indian… it does Mediterranean, with Spanikopita and Baba Ganouj and Falafel and the like. There are sandwiches. But I urge you, try the Indian fare. Just do it.
You’ll find Silk Road Grill at 4300 Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith. It’s tucked back behind a couple of other businesses in the back left corner of the Green Pointe Shopping Center on the south side of the road. Call (479) 494-3041 or check out the restaurant’s website.

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