Outstanding onions

May 5, 1999 at 12:00 am

When they were setting up shop nine years ago, did the owners of A Passage to India choose the name because it had a familiar (yet adventuresome) sound to Western ears? David Lean’s Oscar-nominated 1984 film was seen by thousands who hadn’t read E.M. Forster’s novel of the same title, about racism in the British raj.

It’s probably wishful thinking to hope there was a bit of anti-imperialism in the name selection. A Passage to India serves perfectly good food, including some outstanding dishes, at prices somewhat higher than most Indian restaurants in the metro area.

One of my favorites was chana aloo, chick peas and potatoes with a strong cilantro flavor. Onion kulcha, a bread stuffed with fried spiced onions, was hearty and excellent. (As at all Indian restaurants, bread must be ordered and paid for separately.)

Related is the tasty onion pakura, an appetizer described as deep-fried onion fritters, which also relies seriously on cilantro. We got ours as part of the mixed appetizer, which includes an excellent onion chutney – but don’t take a big bite of this all by itself.

All is not onions, of course. If you appreciate eggplant, you’ll adore begun bhaji, which is pretty much nothing but, and very well done.

I liked the big bowl of white coconut soup, which is more like dessert than starter, sweet but not very. The shrimp poori appetizer is fiery as advertised.

The standard dishes are all on offer – masalas, vindaloos, kormas, biryanis and tandooris – and I found these perfectly acceptable but nothing to rave about.

Lamb sagwala was good but didn’t taste like spinach. (Some would say, "and didn’t taste like spinach.") Lamb madras, requested medium, was as hot as you expect vindaloo to be, but chicken masala came mild as ordered. Mulligatawny soup is sweetish rather than spicy.

I was disappointed in the okra masala, which was overcooked, not tasty and, in the manner of okra, slimy. You have to expect some slime with okra, but an okra dish at another Indian restaurant had been excellent, so I thought it worth a try. It’s not.

A recurring theme of just about all the dishes is softness, as if the chef were respecting diners with recent jaw surgery. You just can’t get a good bite going before the food dissolves. Even the tandoori chicken – a gorgeously crimson chunk of meat – melted in the mouth.

Service at Passage does not revolve around the notion of accommodating the guest. One night, just after sitting down, we realized we were sitting next to a table billowing with smoke (there’d been no inquiry as to whether we preferred smoking or non). We asked to move to another table, and were refused, although the restaurant was mostly empty. Another night, a request for a second table lamp was ignored.

When I got home, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a menu. I called and asked if one could be mailed. No.

When I told a friend, she said, "You should have told them you were reviewing. Then they would have sent it." But the point is that restaurants need to be nice to all their patrons, not just ones who have access to the media.

At dinner, Passage enforces a $7 minimum per person, which would be difficult not to meet if you brought any appetite with you at all.