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Published: Friday, 9/28/2001

Indian Jewel of Toledo: An invitation to expand horizons

If the name is exotic, so, too, seems the menu. We Americans have happily added Italian pasta and pizza, German bratwurst and potato pancakes, and Hungarian chicken paprikash to our everyday diet, but to most of us, at least in the Midwest, Indian cuisine is a great unknown. This is not because India is far around on the other side of the globe, for so too are China, Japan, and Thailand, with whose cooking many of us are entirely comfortable.

Indian cooking, then, is yet another world to explore, and the Indian Jewel of Toledo is a standing invitation to begin. I'm not sure, by the way, that the boast on the face of the menu, “The finest Indian cuisine in town,” is entirely honest. So far as I know, the Tandoor Cuisine of India, 2247 South Reynolds Rd., is the only other Indian restaurant in the area, and it might dispute the Indian Jewel's claim.

My impression is of different regional cuisines, which makes comparisons difficult. My server at the Indian Jewel said that the menu was northern Indian, which suggests that just as there are regional varieties of Chinese cooking, so will we find that India, too, has regional styles, plainly related but distinctive.

One common trait is reflected in the importance of bread, which comes in many varieties, shapes, and flavors. This appears to be due in part to the vegetarian diets prescribed in some religious disciplines. However that may be, do try the two choices under the menu heading of Indian breads. Paratha is a whole wheat bread that, apart from the seasoned oil in which it is prepared, resembles the pita round of Mideast cooking. Like a large pita, it is quartered in the Indian Jewel kitchen, and indeed, again like the Mediterranean pita, it can be the heart of a dinner, stuffed with vegetables in a seasoned sauce.

A second bread, poori, is described on the menu as puffed bread, deep fried. My curiosity piqued, I couldn't pass over a sample of that, and I'm very happy that I didn't. As for looks, poori was not in the running: two bump-covered, golden breads about the size of, say, a pear, warm, slightly crisp, and as hollow as a popover. The flavor is all its own, not sweet but with the rich flavor and texture of fresh bread. I was tempted to order a second helping. Do try it if for no other reason than to learn what a basic food, bread, can become in the hands of a good baker.

There wasn't a familiar name on the list of appetizers, but an offering of lightly battered, fried strips of breast of chicken sounded like a first, tentative step into the unfamiliar, and indeed, it was a rewarding first course into dinner.

The list of entrees is arranged into two columns, side by side, one vegetarian, the other called “curry bowls,” a reminder that to the Indian kitchen we owe curry and chutney. (Did I want the curry mild, medium, or hot? the server asked)

In common with almost all oriental meals a serving of rice - in this restaurant basmati, India's pride - is as inevitable as hominey grits in the American South. It is served in a side dish with fresh peas and bits of carrot or perhaps pulse, the dried seeds of various legumes, and the rice is bright yellow. Though a little saffron goes a long way, it's so expensive that saffron on a $10 entree would eat up all the profit; it's likely that the rice's color comes from turmeric, sometimes called “Indian saffron.”

Among the curry bowls lamb, chicken, and shrimp were listed. I opted for a chicken selection in which cubes of grilled breast were then finished in a creamy, pale pink tomato sauce labeled classic. The sauce, with seasonings I couldn't begin to identify, was delicious, and the chicken, fully cooked, was all the same moist and tender. The serving of the entree, incidentally, is in a brass bowl cleverly mounted in a frame that holds it above a small candle.

Indian cooks have available to them a variety of spices and herbal seasonings that are unknown here except in specialty shops, and one could spend a good many kitchen hours becoming aware of a whole new spectrum of possibilities. I was reminded of this as I dined another evening on a bowl of vegetarian biriyani; the name refers to curried rice, cooked with - once more - new and pleasing seasoning in addition to the curry's contribution. In a biriyani entr e, a larger handful of vegetables is cooked with the rice, a meal that does not leave this American stomach feeling underfed.

A kitchen which has prepared and presented several attractive dishes without exception deserves your attention. You should know, however, that there is no alcoholic beverage service and no smoking in the restaurant. The decor is minimal and informal.

The Jewel occupies one store front in a strip mall called a Marco Pizza complex. The parking area between the store fronts and West Alexis Road, with entry off only one or the other side street, is adequate. It is not brilliantly lighted, and the sight of three or four shadowy figures from the restaurant, smoking, in a cluster around the restaurant door could appear intimidating.



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