It probably isn't true, as a companion insists, that the quality of the fare at an Indian restaurant must be inversely proportional to the smartness of its decor. Yet there is no doubt that some of Greater Cleveland's most authentic Indian cooking is being served up in little eateries that will never, ever win a prize for interior design.
Take Mughal Fine Indian Cuisine. Tucked into an utterly anonymous strip of shops across from Southland Shopping Center, Riaz Syed's restaurant is tidy and comfortable -- albeit predictable -- with glass-topped tables, cloth napkins, and a steady stream of Indian music in the background (including, I swear, something that sounded like a sitar-riddled remix of Marc Anthony's "I Need to Know"). But stylish? Hardly -- unless, of course, your fashion sense inexplicably propels you toward cheerlessly lit red-and-mauve dining rooms accented with green floral upholstery, and the sort of paint-by-numbers English countryside landscapes that are sold at airport Holiday Inn "art" sales.
But, hey, do we come to Mughal for its looks? Of course not. We come here for the food, a collection of exotic and aromatic dishes almost guaranteed to reawaken the senses, clear the sinuses, and improve the circulation. That's especially true because Mughal's food, plainly put, is killer. Freshly prepared and expertly seasoned, the choices include the usual tandoori meats, vegetarian curries, and a host of irresistible flatbreads, as well as a handful of rarely encountered dishes like plump, spicy Bombay balls, filled with mashed potato and piqued with ground bay leaf, cloves, poppy seed, cinnamon, coriander, and black and red pepper; and assorted spicy vindaloos, those southern Indian specialties known for their incendiary heat. "Do you want that medium, hot, or Indian hot?" our server inquired when we ordered the shrimp vindaloo. "Hot," we said bravely. "But not Indian hot." It was a good thing we drew the line: Even at merely "hot," the dish was potent enough to bring tears to our eyes and make us sniffle like coke fiends.
Fortunately for those with more reticent palates, chefs Abul Hassan (formerly with the Saffron Patch in Shaker Heights) and Mohammed Sulaman are perfectly happy to turn down the heat. Vegetarian navratan curry was ordered mild, for example, and the kitchen complied by producing a savory stew of carrot, potato, cauliflower, raisins, peas, and green beans in a creamy, golden cashew-and-almond gravy that was at once sweet, salty, and rich, with just a hint of pepper. And for a young companion, our waitress recommended boneless chicken milki kebab, marinated in seasoned yogurt and saffron, and grilled in the clay oven: Brought forth on a sizzling platter, with sliced onion and fresh lemon, the buttery chicken was intensely flavorful, but not at all fiery.
Mughal's version of palak paneer was also one of the best we've come across. The traditional vegetarian dish of delicate homemade cheese (paneer) in a thick sauce of pureed spinach (palak), cashews, and spices included just enough hot pepper to bring a thin film of perspiration to our brow. Like most of Mughal's main courses, the dish was accompanied by nutty basmati rice (prepared so that the grains are, as folklore dictates, like two brothers: close, but not stuck together); a whisper of saffron and a hint of cardamom imbued the rice with a warm, spicy-sweet flavor.
Mughal's kitchen staff produces 10 different styles of freshly made flatbreads, each one more enticing than the last. Some of them, like naan, roti, and puffed-up poori -- a rich, deep-fried, multilayered bread almost as flaky as French pastry -- are traditionally meant for scooping up the curries and sauces. Others, like kheema naan, with morsels of ground lamb, cilantro, and ginger hidden between its flaky layers, or alu paratha, stuffed with potato, spices, and peas, are eaten as side dishes and help soothe the taste buds between bites of hotter fare. Besides the poori and the kheema naan, plain paratha, a buttery laminated bread baked on a griddle, was a favorite around our table; and because the breads seem especially popular with the K-6 set, any of them would make a compelling introduction to tabletop adventuring for sometimes-picky children.
The notion of appetizers is a western one, and most of the starters listed on Indian restaurant menus would actually be considered snacks or teatime treats back home. Luckily, we aren't ones to stand on tradition, and we didn't hesitate before ordering a bounteous sampler platter. Thin fried pappadum wafers, seasoned with fennel seed, were light and crunchy, like exceptionally kicky potato chips. In contrast, ground lamb-and-pea-stuffed samosas were moist and hearty, and four plump pakoras (deep-fried fritters of shredded veggies bound by a batter of chickpea flour) were mildly seasoned, delightfully toothsome, and indulgently greasy. Both pakoras and samosas were at their best dipped in either the kitchen's minty green chutney or a dark, piquant tamarind version. And the final selections on the sampler platter -- small, intense portions of ground lamb seekh kebab, served with lightly sautéed onion; and succulent chicken molmul kebab, in a luscious cream sauce -- hinted provocatively at the main courses yet to come.
A few empty bottles on a back-wall shelf alerted us to the fact that the restaurant has a beer-and-wine license; just don't wait to be presented with a fancy wine list. Instead, when prompted, our server rattled off the names of a few generic wine varieties, a couple of domestic beers, and two Indian brews -- the floral, European-style Taj Mahal and the finely carbonated, creamy Kingfisher lager. We started off with the Kingfisher, switching to non-alcoholic sweet lassi (an icy, sweet-tart yogurt drink, fragrant with rosewater, and a perfect foil for spicy dishes) as the evening progressed.
To give a final hug to the taste buds, Mughal's menu includes a handful of desserts, including kulfi (a dense ice cream made from boiled milk), rasmali (sweetened cottage-cheese-like dumplings in thickened milk sauce), and kheer, a delicate rice pudding topped with finely chopped pistachios. All good, but the standout was the gulab jamun: golden cake-like balls, gently deep-fried, then soaked in a thin sugar syrup. Achieving just the right texture for the balls, made with a delicate powdered milk-based batter, is a test of any cook's mettle, and gulab jamun often turns out lumpy, soggy, chewy, or brutally overcooked. Not at Mughal, though, where the dish approached perfection: nearly lighter than air, with a smooth, yielding texture and a sweetly floral taste and aroma. In fact, we dare say this could be the most well-executed gulab jamun in all of Northeast Ohio.
So who cares if the decor is more Ralph Kramden than Ralph Lauren? With food this good and flavors this enticing, we don't need chichi style any more than the Taj Mahal needs shingles.