As those who’ve known me a while know, I am not very high on Indian food in the US. Yes, there are some very good restaurants (Rasika in DC, for example) but the cuisine as a whole still seems trapped in the cream and nut paste-laden chicken tikka masala/dal makhni/korma rut that it was in when I arrived in the US in 1993. This is certainly true of the vast majority of curry houses, most of which essentially have the same standardized menu. I don’t fault the restaurants—they serve what the market wants and in most American markets there aren’t enough Indians or other South Asians to ask for very much more. But I rarely want that stuff even when it’s done well.
The sameness of the restaurant scene has certainly seemed to me to be true in Minnesota. A few years ago I set out to try and do a survey of local Indian restaurants but ran out of enthusiasm very early. But, as I’ve also said before, in the last couple of years I’ve begun to suspect that the local Indian population has grown a fair bit (we’ll see what next year’s census reveals) and that much of this growth may have come from South Indian immigrants who are newer to the area. Certainly at India Fest last August the food options were dominated by places serving Hyderabadi dishes—and there are even a few restaurants in the suburbs now with Hyderabad in their names. If there’s been a shift in the clientele then the food may have shifted too. This hypothesis motivated me to overcome my prejudices and try another survey of local Indian restaurants.
The first stop on this new itinerary was two weeks ago at the Apple Valley location of Darbar India Grill. That meal was fine but nothing so very special. Our next stop was just a little further north and east, at Persis Biryani Indian Grill in Eagan (is “India/n Grill” the new “Mahal” in Indian restaurant naming in the US?). This is the one Minnesota outpost of a mini-national franchise operation. Looking at their menu online I noticed that interspersed among the standard curry house fare were a good number of Hyderabadi and other South Indian dishes. I made the hopeful bet that these dishes might be the true strength of the restaurant—this was not true at Darbar, by the way, where the Malabar shrimp and fish curry and the Chicken 65 were among the weak links—and might be aimed at a South Indian clientele. So I gathered up a bunch of friends and we descended on them for early dinner last Saturday.
Were my hopeful expectations dashed? I am very glad to report that they were not. In fact this was the best Indian restaurant meal I’ve yet had in Minnesota. I realize this may seem like damning with very faint praise but I enjoyed the meal on its own terms and not just because it was better than the late, execrable Dosa King. I should note though that with two exceptions we did not order any dishes from the standard North Indian restaurant repertoire: no chicken tikka masala or butter chicken, no dal makhni, no saag paneer and so on. These dishes may also be good here but I cannot tell you about them. I can also tell you nothing about their lunch buffet ($11.99 on weekdays, $15.99 on weekends). So, what did we eat?
There were nine of us (including our brats and another child) and we ordered rather a lot:
- Punugulu: This is an Andhra snack usually made with the same kind of batter used for idlis and dosas and for all intents and purposes taste like deep fried vada holes. The restaurant’s version is made with all-purpose flour and is served with coconut chutney and tomato chutney. Very tasty indeed.
- Cut mirch; I was hoping for the mirchi/chilli bhajis that are common on the streets of Hyderabad—whole green chillies, slit and stuffed with spices, lightly battered and deep-fried—but what showed up was something far heavier on the besan/chickpea flour batter than the chillies. Fine but nothing special. The green chutney it came with was good though.
- Kodi vepudu: Diced chicken stir-fried with a sticky, spicy, tangy masala, this was very good indeed and probably the group’s pick of the appetizers.
- Chicken 65: This regrettably was again a bit of a disappointment. If at Darbar what was sent out was closer to Indian Chinese chilli chicken, here the chicken was fried to a nice crisp but there was no masala clinging to it. See the version at this Andhra restaurant in Delhi to see what I am always hoping to find. Then again if you don’t have any particular expectations you will probably like this a lot, especially with beer.
- Tandoori chicken: The one standard North Indian dish we got, this was for the kids. A little too much red food colouring but that aside I have to say it was done quite well (I snuck a few bites). The kids scarfed this down with naan and steamed rice.
- Dal tadka: A very good home-style dal, devoid of cream.
- Guthi vankaya kura: A classic Andhra curry of baby eggplants stuffed with a paste that involves roasted peanuts and coconut. Quite nice.
- Nellore fish curry: This fish curry was also very good, sour and spicy.
- Chicken Chettinadu: As was this chicken curry made with caramelized onions and Chettinad masala. This might have been my favourite dish of the meal.
- Gongura mutton: Another classic Andhra dish made with gongura, a sour green in the sorrel family. Also rather tasty with the mutton/goat cooked perfectly.
- Chicken biryani: Now biryani is almost always a disappointment in restaurants but Persis’ rendition in the Hyderabadi style is more than acceptable—not overly spiced. And it’s a large portion.
- Mutton biryani: This turned out to be the same as the above except with mutton in place of the chicken, and it was as good. For both biryanis you’ll need to mix them up before serving as the stickier bits are at the bottom. Both are served with raita and a mildly spicy gravy/korma.
- Gulab jamun: We were stuffed but I couldn’t resist trying an order of the gulab jamun. Nothing to write home about but unlike at many Indian restaurants these were not dense and the syrup was not overpoweringly sweet or redolent of rosewater.
We got a naan for the kids to eat with their tandoori chicken. As none of the rest of the dishes go with naans we stuck with the steamed rice the mains came with. Other than the tandoori chicken we asked for everything that should be spicy to be made spicy, and while nothing was unmanageably hot (as can be the case with true Andhra cuisine) some of the dishes packed a nice kick. We shared everything and every dish had enough for six adults and we couldn’t finish it all.
For pictures of the restaurant and the food launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, ambience, value etc. and to see what’s coming next.
If you google this restaurant you are likely to come across—as I did—a number of negative reviews on TripAdvisor that slam it for being a) too small, b) devoid of ambience and c) suffering from poor service. I’d guess all of these concerns are from some time ago as we found none of them to be true. The restaurant is far from small and is quite attractively done up. I appreciated the lack of the standard kitsch on the walls (compare with Darbar) and thought the general aesthetic was quite classy (even if they could do a better job of straightening the art on the walls). The long dining room has a number of tables, spaced nicely, and they also have something called a “party hall”. Service was also very good. It’s true that the restaurant was empty when we got there at 5.30 but it began to fill up very quickly—and they were also doing brisk take-out business. Through it all the servers checked in on us regularly and were able to answer our questions about the menu.
And the bill: all of the above plus two lassis and soft drinks came to $203 and change including tax and tip. Counting the kids as one we were seven diners, which made it $29/head. That might seem high but given how much food we took home 10 adults could have happily eaten what we ordered, so the true price is closer to $20/head. Very good value for what it is.
I would recommend them highly—again with the caveat that if it’s the North Indian stuff you’re interested in then my review may not be of much use to you. Me, I would be very happy to go back again very soon—and there’s more on the menu I’d like to try (I’m curious, among other things, in their idli/dosa offerings). But for our next Indian outing we’ll be going elsewhere in Eagan. Not too far away from Persis is another place that I’ve heard good reports of, Bay Leaf—and it appears that they too have a number of South Indian dishes on the menu. I look forward to seeing how they compare. That won’t be my next Minnesota review however: this weekend we are scheduled for a birthday dinner at Hyacinth in St. Paul. I’ll probably have that review next week with another report each from London and Bombay preceding it.