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Visitors to University Circle should warm to Indian Flame

As the Uptown project in University Circle begins to take shape, Euclid Avenue will sprout sharp new apartments, shops, and restaurants for the many students, staffers, and visitors of its nearby institutions. Already there are whispers of buzz-worthy chef-driven eateries, which would sit tantalizingly close to the amenities that lure 2.5 million guests every year. Of course, some of the existing restaurants are bound to be swept away in the revamp. Here's hoping Indian Flame won't be one of them.

Despite being the most ethnically diverse square mile in Northeast Ohio, University Circle has lacked a bona fide Indian restaurant for as long as we can remember. (Café Tandoor, the Cleveland Heights mainstay, is about four miles away.) For the Circle to snag an eatery as delicious as Indian Flame is a considerable coup.

If there exists a flaw with this Flame, however, it is its size. Tucked into a storefront shoebox across the street from the Cleveland Institute of Art, the snug joint can barely seat 30 people at a time. Compounding the problem is the permanent buffet setup, which gobbles up prime real estate in an already cramped space. But that buffet is what you might call a cook's catch-22: At lunchtime, the all-you-can-eat spread attracts Indian food fans like moths to a ... well, flame.

Though small, the restaurant is surprisingly cheerful. Soaring tin ceilings and full-height windows perk up an otherwise plain room. A handful of booths and tables — and the aforementioned buffet — is about all there is to the place, which suits us just fine. After all, the food is the real draw — and at prices 10 to 20 percent lower than well-known competitors, it's been luring us quite a bit lately.

It's easy to get into a rut at any restaurant — let alone an ethnic one, where the terrain may be less than familiar. Fortunately, Indian Flame boasts a bountiful menu filled with dependable favorites and opportunities for adventure. One such diversion is the paneer appetizer platter ($8.99), which is delivered on a sizzling metal tray. Paneer is a fresh, milky, and mild cheese, but when charred and blistered by the hot pan, it develops a much more compelling flavor. Also cooking on the platter are onions, broccoli, and spices.

Another appetizer you aren't likely to find elsewhere is the Chicken 65 ($6.99), the Indian version of the Buffalo chicken wing. Here, boneless pieces of chicken are lightly battered, heavily seasoned, and fried until crisp. Buckets of chile powder turn the meat an abnormally crimson hue. Standing in for the ubiquitous blue cheese bath is cool and refreshing yogurt raita — a perfect mate.

Rut or no rut, there was no way we were leaving without an order of vegetable samosas ($2.99): puff pastry triangles filled with seasoned mashed potatoes. Fresh from the fryer, these hot pockets are good on their own, but better when doused with spicy mint and cilantro chutney.

Arranged like most Indian restaurant menus, this one is divvied into sections devoted to vegetables, seafood, chicken, lamb, and goat, plus those for tandoor, biryani, and breads. Rice is included with most entrées.

There was so much seafood in the shrimp biryani ($14.99) that it was nearly impossible to spoon out a portion that had none. Mildly seasoned and spiced, the fluffy rice dish is impressive, filling, and built for two.

A few other places in town attempt goat curry, but none in recent memory has risen to the level of the version prepared here ($13.99). Exotic and dark, the sauce possesses a haunting flavor and spice medley that is difficult to forget. The earthy meat literally drips off the bones, making it easy to scoop up chunks with buttery naan ($2). Be careful, though: Orphaned bones lurk in the chestnut-colored gravy.

What lunchtime buffet-goers gain in variety, they lose somewhat in execution. Dishes like saag paneer and chicken tikka masala tend to go heavy on the sauce and light on the main ingredient. In the case of the shrimp biryani, the seafood is not of the same size or quality as that served at dinner. But with seven or eight dishes, not counting rice, breads, and chutneys, nobody's leaving hungry — or broke: The buffet costs just $8.99.

During multiple visits, only one waitress could be found working the room. And while it it's by no means a massive room, there were times when another set of hands would have come in handy, particularly during the lunchtime rush. Dirty dishes sat a bit too long, water glasses cried out for topping off, and checks and change arrived at odd intervals. Still, we're mighty fond of this Flame.

Send feedback to dining@clevescene.com.

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