Curry, With a Side of Belly Dancing
The cuisine at India Blue is authentic and some of it is excellent, but the entertainment is out of place.
India Blue on International Drive is a big-box restaurant with great potential, flashes of brilliance and, as I found out, a streak of strangeness.
The restaurant is housed in a massive building reminiscent of an old warehouse. While the soaring brick semi-Mediterranean arches and two-story arcade design inside, which I like, haven’t changed much from owner to owner, the cuisine has gone to many diverse places. Previous tenants include Darryl’s Bar, Amigo’s Tex Mex and the Caribbean/Southern amalgam called Bogards—that last one having featured an enormous metal fire-breathing fish over the bar. Seriously.
Apart from large portraits of beautiful Indian faces on the walls, India Blue looks like nothing more than a large casual American restaurant: the flavors of this ancient civilization are left to the menu.
One section showcases “Brits Recommendations,” and that’s not a misprint. Open since July 2010, this restaurant is the brainchild of British businessman Deepak Mohindra, who owns the Indian clothing megastore Damini’s in London. The UK has had a deep connection to Indian food ever since the mid-19th century period called the Raj, when Britain ruled the subcontinent, and eating habits brought back to England are still strong: Brits eat more curry than fish and chips.
Chef K. S. “Robbie” Chandhoke, a jovial man who can sometimes be seen walking through the restaurant greeting diners, comes to India Blue after years of restaurant work in New York. His kitchen focuses on the cuisine of northern India, known for thick curries, flat breads and food cooked very quickly in high-temperature ovens.
Starters are fairly unimpressive: Samosa pastries stuffed with vegetables, fried bhojpuri potato cakes and/or batter-dipped vegetable pakora ($5.95 each) can pass the time until the real treasures arrive.
The tandoor, a blisteringly hot clay oven invented in the Punjab region of India, could be called the first barbecue. Chef Chandhoke practices the craft brilliantly, as shown by his King of Kabob ($16.95). The quartered chicken isn’t served on a skewer as the name might suggest, just cooked that way; the tender smoky bird, red and peppery from a secret mix of spices, is among the best tandoori dishes I’ve ever had.
One of the “Brits” specials, chicken vindaloo ($18.95), is as fiery hot as it should be, tempered by tart and slightly sweet tamarind in the sauce for a balanced and unforgettable dish. Another high point is curried crab shorba ($7.95), a rich crabmeat soup resplendent with the flavors and aromas of Madras curry and sweet neem leaves.
There were missteps, from the kitchen as well as the serving floor. Biryani, like Turkish pilaf, is a multi-textural rice dish melding flavors and ingredients. The lamb version ($19.95) was more lamb curry with rice on top than biryani, and disappointing. Two completely forgotten dishes had to be ordered again, and questions like “Is the saag paneer spicy?” were met with uncertain fumbles (creamed spinach with Indian cheese, $13.95, delicious and no, not spicy).
I was nodding along happily to the background mix playing overhead (Bollywood tunes and the high energy pop-electronica-Indian folk music mashup called bhangra) when the music suddenly changed and a sequined belly dancer appeared. It was just as confusing as it sounds, since belly dancing has nothing to do with India. As she bent backwards onto the floor right by our table, balancing a sword on her attractive but suddenly endangered chest and rippling her stomach muscles, I had to stop chewing for fear of biting my tongue. Sorry, India Blue, a little too odd for me.
But maybe odd is what it takes to attract diners these days. A room full of statues of Hindi gods and romanticized sunset views of the Taj Mahal doesn’t make a good Indian restaurant, any more than wax-covered Chianti bottles guarantee an Italian meal worth your time or money.
Can a hybrid British/Indian restaurant doing business in Orlando—with belly dancers—deliver superb Indian food without an incense and sari-laden image straight out of the Raj? Given time to mature, and with a bit more attention to detail from the staff, the answer just might be yes.
ADDRESS 8282 International Drive, Orlando