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Free Range

Subcontinental Drift

Darbar freshens up the Akbar template

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


Darbar

1911-13 Aliceanna St., [410] 563-8008, darbarbaltimore.com

More at weekly.citypaper.com

There’s something mildly familiar about entering Darbar. It’s not merely the ghost of Talay Thai, the restaurant that formerly occupied the space, or the scent of coriander and ginger or the small brass dish of fennel seed near the host stand, marks of many Indian restaurants. Instead, that feeling of deja vu is triggered by the man in the dark suit, round faced and beaming as he takes you to your table (one of many wedged into the larger of two dining rooms), and by the distinct typeface and design of the menu detailing pages of tandoori, biryani, and their accompaniments. When you find out later that the owners of Darbar are also partners in longtime Baltimore favorite Akbar, it all begins to make sense.

But despite sharing ownership and a menu style, Darbar feels different from Akbar, which on recent visits has seemed a little tired. Darbar is Akbar made over and fresher, like the favorite cousin who turns up at the family reunion 10 pounds lighter with a great new haircut and a new spring in her step. The service at Darbar is warmer and less world-weary than at Akbar, and the food, while still homey and familiar, feels revamped, as if old recipes were undertaken with new vigor. Flavors seem clearer, spices more complex. Only the Darbar dining rooms share the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of Akbar, especially the dining area that shares space with the kitchen, which makes a small, noisy space smaller and noisier. The larger room benefits aesthetically from the handsome vaulted ceiling, but it also adds to the din. On a night when most tables in this room are filled, it’s a challenge to hold a conversation.

Still, the food is the reason why this two-month-old restaurant is full of dating couples, friends, and folks in hospital scrubs presumably just off a shift at one of the nearby hospitals catching up over samosas and Taj Mahals. (Free parking by reservation across the street is surely another draw).

It’s an enjoyable challenge to pick through the mostly recognizable dishes—the pakora, the chicken tikka masala, the lamb vindaloo—to find some not as familiar, such as a benghan aftab ($4.95), thin slices of eggplant dipped in a light chickpea batter, fried, and served piping hot. Simple, yes, but pretty delicious too. A greater revelation, however, is the chicken xacutti ($14.95), a specialty from Goa according to our server, who was nothing short of delighted that we chose a dish from his homeland unawares. “They make it very much like they do where I come from,” he said, confiding shyly that the kitchen’s version was “almost as good” as home. Home must be pretty fine then, because this version was a treat: boneless chicken pieces napped in a sauce slightly sweet from roasted coconut but cut with a sneaky underlying spiciness. The two flavors prove a great contrast. It’s a winning dish.

Old favorites are prepared with equal care. Aloo gobi ($12) is a generous serving of spice-crusted potatoes and cauliflower, fragrant and filling. Malai kofta ($12.95), vegetarian dumplings, were brought to the table instead of nawabi kofta ($16.95), lamb meatballs, by mistake, but the server quickly righted the error before we had even begun to eat, leaving us with both dishes. Our table ended up preferring the vegetarian version as much for the seductive creaminess of the tomato sauce as for the light, paneer-based dumplings themselves.

Throughout the evening, the hiss of tandoori mix grills ($17.95) cut through the undertone of talk, stopping conversation as folks turned to see platters trailing plumes of smoke delivered to nearby tables. A sampler of chicken tikka and tandoori chicken, a lamb seekh kebab, a boti kebab, and a tandoori shrimp, the grill is slightly more sizzle than substance, heavy on meat but low on nuance. Still, for the diner who prefers the tandoor to the saucepot, this can be a good choice.

Desserts are uniformly high quality and quietly affordable, from the milky “special kheer” ($3.95) served in a martini glass to the savory sweet gajrela ($4.25), a pudding made from carrots soaked in milk. A hot night, however, deserves a dish of pistachio kulfi ($4.95), velvety rich, like creamy frozen fudge. But if sweets aren’t your thing, another beer or even a Prosecco, which is served by the glass (as are a dozen wines of modest quality, but more than usually found in Indian restaurants) could be just the right way to end a meal.

Service at Darbar is a team sport. Throughout the evening, several servers and suited management checked in at our table to take orders, deliver meals, and ascertain satisfaction. It can all seem a bit overeager, but I didn’t detect a pressure to eat quickly or vacate a table. Instead, I sensed a real care in the operation and in the diner’s pleasure. Go and be pleased.

Darbar is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. A lunch buffet is available daily. It’s the sizzle that sells the tandoori mix grill

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