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Free Range

Café Spice

Former Towson staple thrives in its new worth-the-trip home

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

Café Spice

10540 York Road, Cockeysville, [410] 891-8740,

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The first thing you notice at Café Spice are the umbrellas. The color of gemstones, they hang upside down from the ceiling, amethyst, garnet, and turquoise clouds of fabric glittering in gold braid, mirrors, and embroidery. Combined with the sweeping purple chiffon curtains and shell-pink walls, they transform this warehouse-like storefront space into a place of warmth. And as you sit in Café Spice’s dining room, enveloped by the scent of coriander and ginger, and by noisy conversation undercut with the undulations of Indian music, it’s easy to forget you’re in a Cockeysville shopping center.

Café Spice began its life in Towson, but moved to this location several months ago. Parking in Towson had become an issue, explain owners Rani and Girish Garg as they visit tables throughout the dining room, and business dropped off when Towson University wasn’t in session. Many customers have remained loyal to Café Spice, according to the Gargs, and a packed dining room midweek testifies to the restaurant creating a following in a very short time. That the Cockeysville location has no liquor license appears to be of no issue to customers who walk in with brown-bagged bottles, or to the Gargs, who will remind you gently on the phone to bring beer and wine.

As it is, Café Spice turns out to be one of those happy circumstances where the food matches the restaurant dynamic. The menu offerings are generous, encompassing the expected tandoori, curry, and rice dishes, as well as some not as familiar preparations, including South Indian curries such as madras, with coconut, curry leaves, mustard, tomato, and onion; and malabari, which keeps the coconut and onion and exchanges the rest for ginger and garlic. The restaurant does not serve beef or pork, though you won’t miss either. Instead, dishes feature seafood (fish—usually catfish or salmon—and shrimp), chicken, lamb, and goat.

That said, the restaurant is a great place to embrace your inner vegetarian. Ragada patti ($5.99), a mashed-potato cake appetizer smothered with a tangy tomato-based sauce and dotted with chick peas, with a slick of yogurt swirled throughout, could easily stand on its own as a main dish. And the vegetable pakora ($3.99) are among the best I’ve had recently. The size of a quarter, nicely crunchy with a kick of spice, they are a perfect bite.

Vegetarian entrées, which proportionately take up the largest part of the menu, are built around cauliflower, eggplant, paneer, even egg (egg burji, a mix of vegetables and scrambled eggs, described as a “favorite Indian side dish”). And it’s always a pleasure to find okra on a menu. Bhindi masala ($11.99), a “dry” dish of sautéed okra, ginger, and onions, yields firm chunks of okra with no danger of melting away into sauce. Daal tadkewali ($11.99), yellow lentils stewed with ginger, green chili, and curry leaves, is the sort of homey, humble dish you can easily make at home but that always seems to taste better when someone else is making it, and that’s certainly the case here.

Meat items are slightly more hit or miss. Café Spice offers four different katti rolls, described by the server as an “Indian burrito,” and while the appeal of this is understandable, chicken tikka katti roll ($7.99) is more concept than actual success. As in the Mexican variety, chunks of chicken, green pepper, and onion are rolled together in a tortilla-like flatbread, but there’s little sauce or spice to elevate the roll into anything inspiring. Better to have your chicken tandoori style or nestled with peppers and tomato in a gingery, onion- and butter-based sauce like chicken kadai ($14.99). Goat bhuna ($15.99) takes many of the same ingredients as the kadai, and instead turns them into a ruddy, pungent, spicier sauce. Goat is still a challenge for many Western palates, and until the meat shows more tenderness, it will continue to be a challenge for Café Spice’s diners. Lamb malabari ($15.99), too, is a little tough, though the creamy sauce, coconut-based, milder, and highly aromatic, tempers the texture of the dish.

Ice buckets to chill wine and beer would be welcome on a hot night, but other than that, there’s little about the restaurant that needs tweaking. Service at Café Spice accommodates with gentle interest, and servers are ready to advise pairings, make suggestions, and answer questions concerning dietary restrictions. The Gargs run the dining room like gracious hosts, and the food has that homey feel, as if someone’s mother is in the kitchen cooking for you. Towson’s loss is clearly Cockeysville’s gain.

Café Spice is open for lunch (buffet) and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. BYOB.

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