When Dave and I were at the Westcott Street Cultural Fair in September, we noticed that a new Indian restaurant had opened up just around the corner from Westcott Street, Taste of India at 124 Dell Street, Syracuse. But it wasn’t until yesterday that we took the opportunity to try it out when driving through the neighborhood, hungry for lunch.
We walked in at 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. Very loud Bollywood music was playing and a large flat screen was flashing some program. (I will never understand the purpose of a TV in a restaurant that isn’t also a sports bar.) The “Open” sign in the front window was lit, but there was only one wall light on in the whole place, above the kitchen door. We were not even sure that they were, in fact, open. Nobody was there at first, although soon we were greeted by a smiling hostess who was also the server.
This building was formerly a mechanic’s garage, and it still retains a garage-like ambiance, despite the restaurant’s attempts at creating a comfortable environment. The room is essentially cavernous, with cement floors and a very rough cement ceiling that, sadly, was painted a light color that only highlights the roughness. Tables look good, covered with glass and nicely set. But the lack of lighting was second only to the lack of heat. I was not able to remove my hat or coat during our stay (Dave removed his, but he’s hot anyway).
We asked for menus and found that the prices were a tad higher than we’ve seen in local Indian restaurants. I get that; it’s in the university area where the density of potential diners is good. But we have been spoiled by better prices at a great Indian restaurant closer to home, so we opted for the buffet.
I tried everything. Granted, it’s hard to taste the full richness of food that quickly turns to ice on the ice-cold plate. But I took only two bites of everything in rapid succession and was, to put it mildly, extremely disappointed. I was really hungry, and this usually makes food taste better. But it didn’t help here. Whoever is in the kitchen may be making the family happy in a home setting, but they simply do not have the chops for a restaurant.
The vegetable pakora was very salty and lacking flavor nonetheless. Chicken Chana and a couple other forgettable curries were stale, over-seasoned (you had better like your Indian food plenty spicy, because that’s all you get on this buffet), and oddly bland despite all the spices. Good chefs know that if you don’t treat the basic ingredients with respect, no amount of seasoning will save the dish.
My favorite vegetarian dish in any Indian restaurant is Saag (or Palak) Paneer, and I often eat it from buffets as well as from the menu. We even make it at home. The paneer (homemade cheese) was okay. The spinach, my friends, had crossed The Line. You know this line, the one between great Brussels sprouts and overcooked ones tasting of sulfur, or fresh, lightly cooked spinach and the stuff that comes in a can. Sadly, this was the first time any ethnic food actually reminded me of hospital food.
About halfway through our meal, a couple came in. Then some lights got turned on. (What were we, chopped liver?) We were given naan. It was fine. I tried the tea. It was fine. The gulab jamun, alas, were deflated (I have never seen this before!) and overly oily. There was some very light seasoning in the syrup but none of the rose water after which this dish is named. I couldn’t eat more than one.
Hoping to find one nice thing to say about this restaurant (aside from the lovely table settings and the general pleasantness of the hostess/server), I hit the ladies’ room. Is it clean? (see Bourdain’s disdain for filthy bathrooms). I am happy to report that it was very clean. Good.
Only after I paid did the hostess/server ask me if everything was okay, not back when something might have been done about it. Gosh, what an awkward moment! I am a terrible liar, so I just said, “I have to be honest; I’ve had better.” Then I tried to make some sort of compliment. It was weak.
I don’t know how the owners might rescue this place. It’s got location location location, being so close to Westcott Street. Alas, it is not actually visible from Westcott, and it’s set way back on its Dell St. property. It is also competing with beloved Alto Cinco and Munjed’s. If they replace the chef, if the food were truly stupendous, then there would be no problem. I’d even put up with keeping my coat on, as I’ve done in multiple restaurants in other countries. But the food had better be an improvement over every other Indian restaurant in the city.
As we walked out, Dave noticed the sign over the door and laughed: Taste of India – Finest Indian Cuisine. Not.