Before Jewel of India opened in South Portland last year, I was underwhelmed by the Indian food in the Portland area. Sure, some of the city’s Indian restaurants such as Hi Bombay! cooked serviceable Indian food, but nothing I have tried since moving to the city stood out. After reading rave reviews of the “Brit-Indi” cuisine at Haggarty’s, I rushed to try it, only to be disappointed. The food was fresh and tasted good, but it isn’t true Indian food (nor does it try to be).
Finally, I can say that Portland has crave-able Indian food. I’m talking about food that you are still thinking about the day after you eat it; food that forces you to incorporate Indian cuisine into your regular rotation. Bukhara Indian Bistro was that restaurant for me in Boston. Here in Portland, it’s Jewel of India.
What makes good Indian food stand out is its depth of flavor. Each bite reveals new tastes and different spices. After eating its food on four separate occasions, virtually everything I’ve enjoyed at Jewel of India meets this description. We first dined there for an early dinner on New Year’s Eve. Since then we’ve sampled the lunch buffet and ordered take-out twice, thoroughly enjoying every meal.
I usually stick to a too-narrow list of entrees when dining at Indian restaurants. Although I frequently see other dishes that sound great, I most often order from a small circle of my favorites: chicken tikka masala, shrimp (or lamb) vindaloo, saag paneer, pindi chana (or some other chick pea dish), plus of course naan. At Jewel of India I’ve tried all of these as well as lamb rogan josh, chicken biryani, and a few other curries during the lunch buffet.
Virtually everything that I have tried has been very good or excellent. Being one of the most popular and common Indian dishes, chicken tikka is what I use to compare restaurants. (Besides, I have a hard time not ordering it ever time I eat Indian cuisine; it’s one of my staple comfort foods). Jewel of India’s version is unrivaled in Portland, its rich and creamy tomato sauce revealing different spices with each bite. With such a complex sauce, it was easy to overlook the one occasion when the chicken itself was a touch overcooked.
The saag paneer features chunks of fresh cheese set amongst a pile of intriguingly spiced creamed spinach. Some saag dishes can be rather bland, but this one featured great complexity, owing to a welcome mix of spices. Although the chana masala punjabi incorporates similar spices as the chicken tikka, its sauce lacks creaminess, while featuring brighter flavors, with a definite coriander note.
The lamb rogan josh spotlights sweeter flavors of almonds, cashews and raisins in its mild, but rich sauce. If you are adverse to spicy foods, this may be a good place to start. Also on the mild side of spectrum is the chicken biryani, which, although not my favorite of the restaurant’s dishes, is a good entry point for those trying Indian food for the first time. The rice-based entree incorporates pieces of sliced chicken breast and an assortment of vegetables, dried fruits and nuts. All other dishes are served with well-prepared, fragrant basmati rice, studded with carrots and the occasional pea.
Indian lunch buffets are often rather disappointing, with trays of past-their-prime curries sitting for who-knows-how-long atop bunsen burners . The key is finding restaurants that frequently refresh the dishes in the buffet line. Luckily, the Jewel of India draws a decent lunch crowd, resulting in frequent food turnover. Highlighting the buffet on the day I visited was a chicken dish with a creamy, tomato-based sauce. Similar to chicken tikka masala in flavor, it also included onions, peppers and other vegetables. I actually enjoyed this more than the old standby and would not hesitate to order it if featured on the regular menu.
The only downside of the buffet was the naan. This flatbread really must be enjoyed as it emerges from the tandoor oven. Otherwise it soon becomes soggy and chewy. Thus, even though no Indian meal is complete without a large piece of naan to sop up extra sauce, I rarely order it when doing take-out. It’s just not the same. On the buffet bar, the pile of pre-made naan suffers the same fate. Although more labor-intensive, I prefer the few Indian restaurants that prepare a fresh piece for everyone who orders the buffet.
Last I checked, the restaurant only offered the buffet Thursday – Sunday. It is undoubtedly worth a short drive on those days if you are looking for an opportunity to sample a number of dishes for around $10. If dining in, you will note an unremarkable wine list, which is okay; this is beer food. I enjoyed a Kingfisher Lager, but they also have a short list of American macro-brews along with Shipyard Export Ale.
If, like me, your search for good Indian food in the Portland area had come up short, go try Jewel of India. Having discovered its fantastic Indian cuisine, I will no longer have to drive south to Boston for my Indian food fix.