Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Curry in a hurry

Posted By on Wed, Jan 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Fast food from India? It beats Taco Bell, if not in price at least in flavor and authenticity.

In late November Rohit Khanna, born in New Delhi, opened what he calls "the first express Indian restaurant in Michigan, where you can get a complete meal for under $6." Chilli Masala is centrally located in Canton, in the midst of the western suburbs' growing Indian population.

His customers, he estimates, are 60 percent Indian and 40 percent American. For $3.95 to $5.95 they can get a kathi roll: chicken, lamb, eggplant, paneer (housemade cottage cheese) or mixed vegetables enfolded in a soft wrap and served with a dipping sauce of mint, garlic and yogurt. And for now, at least, the lunch special is on all day: a whole meal for $5.49 — veg, naan, salad and dessert — or for $7.49 (add chicken curry).

The fast-food theme is followed relentlessly. Customers place their orders at the cash register. The food is served on paper plates. Diners must collect their plastic forks and skimpy napkins from labeled bins and squirt their own drinks from the pop machine. There's a kids' menu of pizza, mac and cheese, chicken fingers and tater tots, and, of course, there's no alcohol.

If its dishes are not quite as delicious as the offerings in some slower Indian restaurants, Chilli Masala gives value for money. Entrées are served with rice and naan, items which must be ordered and paid for separately in many places, and the "combo" option adds delicious black lentils, dal makhani, for $2 more. The lentils are cooked overnight in a clay oven; cream is added, and you can tell.

All this takes place in a bright, open space that's a step up from most fast-food establishments, to the accompaniment of the most daring Bollywood music videos — worth a look themselves. That's on weekdays. On weekends, the TV screens keep patrons abreast of cricket from the subcontinent.

As if that weren't enough entertainment, educational charts on the wall define and translate all the Indian food terms, and vivid pictures, taken by Khanna himself, show diners just what they're going to be fed.

My favorite dish on a long, all-north Indian menu — 24 chicken, lamb or fish entrées and 12 vegetarian ones — was lamb saagwala, cooked in creamed spinach. It's appropriately smooth and rich, though a lot more sauce than lamb — you'll have plenty to take home and add your own rice to the next day.

The usual korma, rogan josh, vindaloo and bhuna are also available with lamb, but chicken receives some different treatments, such as tomato sauce and makhani, often called "butter chicken." I liked chicken in cashew sauce, although the "hot" spice level obscured the cream and nut flavors. In fact, on two visits I found no difference between "hot" and "medium." Khanna took one dish back to the kitchen and added cream to tone down the heat level some; it worked.

Gosht (lamb) biryani suffered from a scantiness and a toughness of lamb, but the rice was moist and the plate was heaped high. Some of the cold appetizers are a bit off the beaten track. One is papri chat, squares of deep-fried tortilla, chickpeas, potatoes and onions in a refreshing yogurt-tamarind-mint sauce. Bhel puri is similar but served in a basket-shaped crisp tortilla. For those who want the familiar starters, vegetarian and nonvegetarian samosas and pakoras are also on hand.

Khanna serves a good selection of breads, including garlic naan and paratha flavored with mint, though not the puffy poori many Westerners love. Onion kulcha has not only onions but cilantro embedded in its glossy surface.

For dessert, a fast-food diner on the run can't go wrong with a generous mango lassi, if she or he can wait till dessert to drink it. Kheer, a very thin rice pudding, is a good cool and creamy counterpart to the heat that's gone before. I tried rasmalai, bland cottage cheese dumplings in a thin cardamom-flavored sauce, but preferred a very simple special made of farina, sugar and saffron cooked in butter. Resembling a big heap of brown sugar, this is comfort food, basically just sweet softness or soft sweetness, something you can imagine scarfing by the bowlful when depressed.

I love Indian food, and I can't decide whether that makes me more or less inclined to eat Indian fast food (if I lived in Canton, a location that, for a Detroiter, is too distant to count as "fast," in any case). Is the unpleasantness of plastic tableware worth the convenience of a quick fix? You decide.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to


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