India Star’s clay oven magic6/12/2013
Spring served proof of the holiness of ethnic food fairs. How else can one explain how CelebrAsian, the Jewish Food Fair and the Greek Food Fair were all blessed by gorgeous weather sandwiched amongst the otherwise dark rye skies of this most dismal of Iowa springs? Those glorious days of kugels, momos and dolmades reminded me how much has changed regarding the diversity of the things Iowans like to eat. So have church suppers with cosmopolitan congregations at St. Ambrose or Cottage Grove Presbyterian. All beg the question: “When is street food, or church food, ready to go mainstream?” The Nepali food stand seems to be the first to sell out each year at CelebrAsian, but would Iowans support a Nepali café? For every La Tapatia and A Dong that has grown and thrived here, there are two or three ethnic places that quickly faded away. What does it take to make it?
With that in mind, I revisited India Star, a café that has succeeded where similar north Indian restaurants have not. In 2006, owner-chef Baba Singh moved into a larger and more comfortable site on Douglas after nine years in Beaverdale. His timing was bad. That was just before worldwide food inflation and an economic collapse decimated the dining industry. Yet India Star survived and business has grown.
If there is a secret to success here, it’s the tandoor — a circular clay oven imported from the Punjab and moved from Beaverdale. Tandoori cooking is an historic culinary milestone. Back when the French were still eating acorn gruel, sophisticated Muslim chefs fused Arab methods of “endoring” (color-coating) with the Hindu technology of charcoal-fired clay ovens. That’s been refined for some 1,200 years.
Since Singh introduced tandoori to Des Moines, several places followed but usually with stainless steel and gas simulating clay and charcoal. Bread, not rice, is the base of Punjabi cuisine. Singh’s naans and his whole wheat, unsalted rotis are baked on the clay oven walls. His bread menu also includes some southern Indian starches: deep-fried, whole wheat puris and bhaturas, which are made with refined flours and curds. Paranthas (layered, unleavened flat breads) were treated with clarified butter and griddle fried. Both naan and parantha can be stuffed with potatoes or meats, virtual Sikh pizza. All were superb.
Mulligatawny soup was a $2 revelation, with essential curries diluted in pure stock. Combination appetizer platters, all less than $5, were an even better deal, particularly for single diners, who also relish India Star’s thalis, which offer six small dishes for $10-$11. Chicken chat (marinated with tomato and onion in ginger, garlic and lemon) and pakoras (meat and vegetables coated in chick pea flour and fried) starred on an affordable appetizer menu ($1.50 -$4).
India Star’s best curries were made with Singh’s fresh, homemade paneers (cheese). He makes several kinds of dhal (lentil or bean stews) including a super rich makhani (tomato, garlic, heavy cream) version in ghee (clarified butter). Tandoori chicken was marinated in yogurt with a garam masala (garlic, ginger, cumin, cayenne, red chile) and cooked to a divine juiciness. Singh makes whole chickens, half chickens and chicken tikka (boneless pieces). He also cooks lamb, kebabs, fish and shrimp in his tandoor and applies such meats to other dishes, notably the decadent chicken makhani.
Desserts included the usual Punjabi suspects — khir (rice pudding), gulab jamun (dee-fried donut holes in syrup), ras malai (pistachio cheese in sweet cream) and gajrela, a famed carrot dish from the Mugal court. Singh also makes homemade ice cream, with fresh mango topping. A short, inexpensive wine and beer list was available.
Side Dishes Pam Oldes won the second Iowa Best Bite Restaurant challenge, plus subsidies worth $153,000 and will open On the Green restaurant in Oskaloosa this July. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.