As recently mentioned, one of my food goals for 2019 is to explore more of the Twin Cities metro’s Indian food scene. I’d tried to do this a few years ago but gave up after not terribly encouraging results (we had a decent meal at Bawarchi in Plymouth and a rather disastrous meal at Dosa King in Spring Lake Park). Since then we’ve restricted our South Asian food outings to House of Curry in Rosemount. However, in the last couple of years I’ve begun to suspect that there’s a chance that there may have been some improvement in the scene. For one thing, it appears to me that the Indian population in the area may have grown—I guess the census will confirm or contradict this next year—and that there’s been an uptick in a younger South Indian population. This seemed borne out at the 2018 India Fest in St. Paul in August where the food vendors were predominantly Hyderabadi, and the food was pretty good too. However, having been burned before by long drives for unremarkable food, I decided to start closer to home in the south metro. And so when Mike McGuinness of the excellent Twin Cities East Metro Foodies Facebook group mentioned that there was now a branch in Apple Valley of his favourite Indian restaurant in the Cities, Darbar India Grill, we decided to start there.
The Apple Valley location is tucked away in the large shopping center just off Cedar Avenue and County Rd. 42 in Apple Valley. It is a large restaurant with the dining room separated into two wings, each with booths that can seat four and one with tables that can be joined together for larger groups. The space is attractive enough—though the art on the walls is of the Orientalist school—and the restaurant is bright and tables spaced well. They have the inevitable buffet at lunch but at dinner it is a la carte only. We were there for dinner on a Saturday night (just last evening, in fact). As we were eating with our kids we got there on the early side, at 5.45 and found it quite busy. We were the last customers by the time we left at 7.45 but it seemed like they were still doing brisk takeaway business. I’d guess they’re pretty busy at weekday lunch.
What did we eat? We were a group of seven—five adults and our boys—and we were all hungry and so ordered rather a lot. The menu presents very few variations on curry house fare. There are a few nominally South Indian dishes mixed in with the North Indian standards but you’re not going to encounter anything very unusual here. Other than the regular menu they had a separate menu of appetizer specials, a number of which seemed to be in the chaat/snacks family. Herewith the details on the things we ate and my general opinion of them:
- Things got off to a good start with the Alu-Tikki Chaat from the appetizer specials menu (we got two orders). The tikkis themselves were cut up and disappeared under the chana masala and other toppings and chutneys but the whole had very nice flavour. And the mint-cilantro and tamarind chutneys served with the chaat were good too. Alas, things took a turn for the worse after that.
- The Malabar Shrimp was entirely unremarkable. The shrimp had no particular flavour and the texture was a bit too rubbery. Apart from the grated coconut sprinkled over the top, it was hard to know what was Malabar about this.
- The Chicken 65 was better but it wasn’t Chicken 65 as I know it. It tasted to me more like the chilli chicken I grew up eating in Chinese restaurants in India. There was no sign of curry leaves and no bright chilli heat. And the chicken cubes themselves were a bit soggy—as though they’d been fried and held for a while before being tossed with the sauce (which seemed like it might have had soy sauce and ketchup in it).
- We returned to the realm of the positive with the veg entrees. First up was a very tasty Bhindi Amchuri which featured rings of okra cooked with onions, tomatoes and mango powder. A little too much oil maybe but that was my only criticism. It tasted like a good home-style bhindi dish.
- The Palak Paneer was likewise quite tasty. The paneer itself was hard and sad but that’s par for the course in restaurants of this kind. However, the pureed spinach had been cooked very nicely; it was not doused in cream, which allowed the flavour of the spinach and the spices to come through.
- The basic Dal was another home-style dish, done very well. No cream, no spice overload.
- The non-veg entrees were a bit more of a mixed bag. The Chicken Biryani was fine. Not bad, not remarkable in any way. It was served with a raita that I quite liked.
- We got an order of Tandoori Chicken for the boys. They liked it a lot. I thought it was okay though I did appreciate that the kitchen wielded a slightly restrained hand with the food colouring—it wasn’t radioactive maroon as it often can be.
- Also from the tandoor was one of the few nouveau’ish dishes on the menu: Fig-Orange Chicken Tikka. From the description it seemed like the fruit were in the marinade but what turned up seemed like regulation chicken tikkas (without much char on them) that had been tossed in a sickly-sweet orange sauce.
- The Goat Nihari was much better. The goat was cooked to a proper tenderness and the gravy was tasty as well, if a bit on the sweet side. Our one complaint here was that the meat, which was on the bone, was cut rather randomly with bone chips everywhere. I assume they buy pre-cut goat that’s been passed through band-saws.
- As with the Malabar Shrimp the Malabar Fish Curry was not particularly Malabar. It tasted to me like someone had taken chicken tikka masala sauce and added a few more things to it. It was tasty in its own right but not what I was expecting or hoping for.
- A lot of this came with rice (rather a lot of it) and we also got some breads: regular naans, garlic naans and a lachha paratha. The breads were unobjectionable but not great.
For pictures of the restaurant and the food please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on value, service and my overall recommendation.
All of this came to about $195 with tax and tip. Portions were rather hefty. It is true we ordered a lot but we didn’t finish anything but the appetizers and took a lot of food home (or rather our friends did—we have enough Indian food at home). I would say that 8-10 adults could have made a good meal of everything we ordered. That would put the cost at $20-24/head all-in. That’s a pretty good deal; though keep in mind that we did not have any drinks or dessert. Service was present and friendly and the young man who took our order was able to answer questions well. And if you’re wondering about heat levels and so forth, every single dish comes with a 1-5 heat setting option. When asked about heat while ordering I said that I’d like everything that should be hot to be properly hot and things that shouldn’t be to not be. No, I was told, I needed to specify a number for every dish—even the dal. We got a range of heat levels (from 1 for the boys tandoori chicken to 5 for the chicken 65 and the Malabar shrimp/fish dishes; everything else was at a 3 or 4). The chicken 65 had a bit of heat to it but nothing was what I would describe as particularly hot, and I think everyone at the table shared that opinion.
On the whole, I’d recommend it for anyone looking for decent Indian food in the area. It’s much better than the Indian restaurant in our town 30 minutes south, but that’s not saying much. But it’s not anything we’re in a huge hurry to come back and try again right away. And I suspect that when we do return we’ll stick with their vegetarian dishes which, from appetizer to entree, were the most successful at this meal. As to what this meal’s quality says about the food at the mothership in Minneapolis, I’m not sure, but at some point I might get around to checking it out. For now, however, I’m going to go further east in my exploration of Indian food in the area. My next stop on this itinerary will be at one of two restaurants in Eagan: Bay Leaf or Persis. If you’ve eaten at both/either and have warnings or recommendations, please let me have them. Also let me know which Indian restaurants in St. Paul and the East Metro you’d recommend (I think I’ve heard good things about Indian Masala in Maplewood).
Oh yes, before I forget, in seeming further confirmation of my hypothesis that the Indian population in the South Metro has grown, I discovered that there’s a new Indian grocery a few storefronts away from Darbar: Mantra Bazaar. I popped in after dinner and while it’s small (and apparently looking to expand) it has most of the essentials. The owner (at least I think he was the owner) said they’d been open about 18 months. This is going to knock 20 minutes and a lot of traffic off my basic Indian grocery runs to TBS Mart in Richfield. You can probably expect a report on this store in my other series on immigrant grocery stores.
More Indian food comes your way on the blog next week: I’ll have reports on a tandoor-based restaurant in London and a Goan restaurant in Bombay.