According to an old Indian saying, the grains of properly prepared rice should be like two brothers: close, but not stuck together. It's a simile that Clay Oven chefs and owners Kesar Singh and Gurcharn Singh have apparently taken to heart, as they turn out platters of firm, nutty long-grained basmati rice that would warm the heart of any Northern Indian kitchen traditionalist.
And tradition is an important part of what the restaurant is all about. After all, preparing meats and breads in the eatery's namesake clay oven, or tandoor -- an earthenware, charcoal-fired contraption, invented centuries ago in Persia -- is about as classic as it gets. Throw in the fact that the assorted spice blends are freshly ground and that the yogurt, cheese, and bread dough are made in-house, and you've got the basis for authentic Indian dining.
Along with the rice -- a staple of the Indian diet -- the Fairview Park restaurant serves a mind-boggling array of homemade snacks, curries, tandoor-baked meats and seafood, chutneys, breads, desserts, and beverages. Since a typical Indian dinner might include one or two curries, rice, hot flat breads like naan or roti, a cooling yogurt-and-vegetable raita, and perhaps a sweet for dessert, the enormous selection at the Clay Oven can make piecing together a dinner both a delight and a challenge. And since nearly everything is priced à la carte, it can also get a tad pricey, with a full meal for two easily adding up to $40.
The coward's way out, of course, is to order one of the three complete dinners for two that are listed on the menu. The most grand of these includes soup or a choice of appetizers (items like vegetable or meat samosas or deep-fried vegetable pakoras), tandoori chicken and shrimp, chicken tikka, seekh kabab, meat and vegetable curries, saffron rice, bread, and dessert. At $34 for a couple, the dinner is certainly an efficient and cost-effective way to sample a variety of dishes.
But then again, these full-meal deals don't necessarily exercise one's sense of adventure. If we had followed the path of least resistance on our most recent visit, for example, would we have had a chance to try the meltingly tender rounds of warm, moist onion kulcha: an unleavened flat bread dough kneaded together with sliced onion and baked in the tandoor oven? Or the creamy, sweet-and-tart lassi: a thin, cold Indian "milkshake" made with yogurt, rosewater, and sugar? Or the surprisingly floral and refreshingly light Flying Horse Royal Lager beer, served in a double-sized bottle just right for sharing? Maybe not. And that would have been our loss.
So instead, we rose to the challenge by ordering an abundance of individual dishes that our party of five passed around the table, creating our own customized tasting menu starting with a plate of freshly fried papadums: delicate wafers of peppery, finely ground lentils. The wafers were accompanied by a selection of chutneys -- a zesty green mint, a thin sour-and-sweet tamarind-and-date, and a fiery sliced red onion spiked with red chilies -- that served as condiments throughout the meal.
Appetizers are not part of traditional Indian fare, but have become popular as a result of Western influences, and many of the items listed as appetizers on the Clay Oven menu would more likely be eaten as snacks or with afternoon tea than as a first course. But that didn't stop us from sampling a selection of vegetable pakoras (deep-fried fritters of diced potato, cauliflower, and spinach), a crunchy treat not too different from the batter-dipped veggies sold at county fairs and festivals. We also tried Aloo Tikki, two small patties of breaded and deep-fried potato, which were a bit bland and dry for our tastes. However, the Aloo Tikki was accompanied by a small serving of traditional Punjabi-style chole -- remarkably tender chick peas in a lightly spiced sauce -- that impressed my Indian companions with its attentive preparation and homemade flavor.
Like rice, breads are an important part of the Indian meal, both for scooping up curries and for buffering the heat of many highly spiced dishes. Not surprising, then, that the Clay Oven offers more than a dozen types, including naan (slightly leavened white-flour bread baked in a tandoor), chapati (also known as roti, a thin, unleavened whole-wheat bread cooked on a griddle), paratha (a multilayered whole-wheat bread cooked on a griddle with butter), and poori (puffy whole-wheat bread deep-fried in oil). Most of these breads are also available "stuffed," with ingredients like chicken, lamb, garlic, onions, spiced potatoes, or cauliflower baked into the dough. Our orders of gobhi paratha (whole-wheat bread with spiced cauliflower) and onion kulcha contained two warm, wonderful flat breads each; I could easily have eaten both orders by myself, and someday I intend to return to the Clay Oven and do just that.
The restaurant is snuggled into one of those bunker-like edifices found squatting down in front of budget motels along Lorain Road. The grim exterior, however, belies the pleasant although mostly windowless interior. Two nonsmoking dining rooms and a small lounge, where smoking is allowed, contain glass-topped, white-linen-draped tables set with colorful placemats and silk flowers. Recorded scores from Hindi movies (which are almost always "musicals" by Western standards) provide the soundtrack, and bright tapestries with stylized scenes of folkloric Indian life -- women at the well, couples performing ritual dances, and the like -- decorate the paneled pine walls.
Just as a number of Hindis are vegetarians, many of them also abstain from alcohol. However, the country does produce at least three beers that are relatively well-known in the West, including the strong, bitter Kingfisher lager, a malty Taj Mahal lager, and the crisp, almost wine-like Flying Horse lager that went delightfully with our savory entrées. (The restaurant also has a full bar and a selection of American brews.) Among the nonalcoholic choices, we are crazy about the sweet lassi, the mango-flavored lassi, and the iced masala tea topped with whipped cream, all time-honored beverages that make cooling foils for spicy foods.
Even though many natives like their curries fiery enough to work up a good sweat, Indian foods don't have to be ordered extremely hot. I found that a "medium" level of spiciness was enough for me.
Among the numerous vegetarian options, we enjoyed palak paneer: cubes of mild, soft-textured white cheese cooked in a thick, creamy purée of spinach and spices. On the other hand, the kitchen's version of navaratana curry (whose name means "nine jewels," in reference to the abundance of sweet and savory ingredients that are supposed to make up the dish) was more tomato sauce than vegetables, and we never detected the cashews or raisins that are expected parts of the blend. However, an order of thick, mildly seasoned dal, made of puréed lentils fried in butter with onions and tomatoes, seemed authentic and delicious, especially when scooped up with bread or ladled over rice.
As meat entrées, we tried lamb curry filled with chunks of rich, tender meat in a marvelously savory gravy of onions and tomatoes, accented with a slowly building heat; and scrumptious "butter chicken," made with chunks of boneless white meat that had been grilled in the tandoor, then combined with a robust red curry of cream, butter, and tomato.
According to my sources, ice cream and orange Popsicles (called "lollipops" there) are popular treats among Indians. And my friends were thrilled to find homemade kulfi, a traditional Indian ice cream, on the Clay Oven menu. The soft-textured, ivory-colored confection is much richer than American ice cream and is made by boiling down milk until its volume is condensed by about two-thirds. The resulting thick syrup, flavored with a touch of saffron, is then frozen in a conical container before being served as a luxuriously full-flavored and slightly exotic ending to a meal.
We were less enthusiastic about a serving of kheer, an aromatic rice pudding. Like kulfi, properly made kheer is the result of long, slow cooking that produces a thick pudding, which is then flavored with cardamom, rosewater, raisins, and almonds or pistachios. However, our bowl of kheer, while cool and sweet, was disappointingly soupy, and contained surprisingly few raisins and just a hint of finely chopped nuts.
Better was the gulab jamun: two small balls of tender, cake-like cheese that had been deep-fried and then soaked in a thin, sweet syrup. Our Western palates found the warm dessert to be comfortingly soft and sweet, even though our exacting Indian companions said it fell short of what Mom used to make.
But this, of course, assumes Mom raised you in Calcutta. For us Westerners, weaned on canned fruit cocktail, Jell-O pudding, and corn flakes, a meal at Clay Oven is hard to beat for fresh, well-prepared, and complex-flavored food.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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