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Ghazal Fine Indian Cuisine

A new neighbor tones down the décor and excels in spots
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  February 26, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

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Ghazal Fine Indian Cuisine | 711 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain | 617.522.9500 | Open Monday–Thursday, 11 am–11 pm; Friday, 11 am–midnight; Saturday, noon–midnight; and Sunday, noon–11 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Street-level access via rear parking lot | No valet parking
Once upon a time, I attended a neighborhood meeting about transferring the liquor license from the lamented Café D to the proposed Ghazal. For some reason, neighbors were concerned not about whether the new owners could handle the responsibilities of a full liquor license, but about how the neighborhood would support two Indian restaurants.

Ghazal has certainly answered that question by providing a variety of dishes that Bukhara (the other Indian restaurant in question) does not, plus warm service, competitive pricing, and mixed drinks. Whether that's a commercial answer, I don't know. (I do food, not market analysis.)

Speaking of which, the fare at Ghazal is generally up with the better second-tier Indian restaurants, and sometimes excels. The chefs here have solved the sizzling-platter problem, for instance, in which you enjoy the noise and aroma, but find that the heated insert has overcooked your food. Each platter is lined with raw onions, red and green bell peppers, and broccoli. The tandoori meats or seafood on top are insulated, and the vegetable underlayer gets nicely seared, no more.

The rest of the meal begins ordinarily enough, with a couple of papadum and the usual three chutneys: mint, tamarind, and a tongue-scorching onion. Our favorite appetizers were tomato soup ($2.95), and the wonderful fried things on the Ghazal special platter ($10.95). The soup is thick without cream, loaded with fresh cilantro and a calibrated hit of spice, and came to the table piping hot. As for the platter, I liked the tandoori chicken chunks, but I loved the pyramidal samosas (with spicy "lamburger," $3.95/à la carte; one with even spicier potatoes and peas, $2.95) and the mixed-vegetable pakoras ($3.50; also available in cheese, chicken, and potato varieties, $4.95).

Bhel ($4.95), one of my bellwether appetizers, gets a spicy treatment here. It's basically puffed wheat, chickpeas, diced apples, and apple cubes. You eat it with a spoon — think Cajun crackerjack. Dahi bhalla ($3.95) brings lentil dumplings in a yogurt and tamarind sauce, but it sounds better than it tastes. The white dumplings are bland and heavy, though the sauce is fine. A little Tabasco is actually what it needs.

My favorite entrée was rack of lamb ($20.95): four baby chops marinated in yogurt and a novel spice mixture, with the vegetables from the sizzling platter underneath. On the tandoori sahnji mixed grill ($18.95), the best items were the herbal minced-lamb seekh kebab ($11.95) and the heavily marinated lamb tikka ($14.95). You could probably steer clear of the tandoori chicken ($11.95) or cubes of chicken ($13.95), and possibly the shrimp ($16.95), too. The mixed grill, like most tandoori dishes here, has a creamy tomato sauce, also touched up with cilantro, which is excellent.

From the south Indian sub-menu, the aloo masala dosa ($7.95) is a classic giant rice-flour pancake, rolled so long it extends beyond the edges of the plate. The potatoes and onions inside aren't quite caramelized, as they're meant to be, but they're close. The accompanying bowl of soup/dip, known as sambar, isn't nearly strong enough. As my colleague MC Slim JB pointed out in his recent "On the Cheap" review of this place, you have to be insistent if you want things spicy. I requested "medium" hotness on three visits, but it only got hotter as I became a familiar face.

Some of the most attractive vegetarian options bring small portions. Vegetable xacuti ($15.95, also in slightly more expensive meat and seafood permutations), for instance, has lots of good carrots, some onions, bits of cauliflower and broccoli, and even a few cubes of tofu or paneer cheese. It's sweet and sour — perhaps too sweet for some — and very nice with rice or bread. The soup-bowl portion will not please hungry vegans. Chana saag ($16.95) is chickpeas with spinach, and didn't come together for me.

Indian buffets work for the same reason Chinese buffets don't: stews get better as they sit in a chafing dish; fried foods and stir-fries get worse. So the lunch buffet ($7.95/weekdays; $9.95/weekends) is an outstanding buy. One stew I particularly liked at lunch was chicken dilruba ($12.95/dinner): boneless breast in a ginger-coriander sauce with a very effective use of fresh mushrooms. Chicken Tikka Masala ($12.95), a dish so common in England they sell it at McDonald's and put it on pizza, is rendered new and exciting by using the same tandoori tomato-cream sauce with cilantro as the base.

Ghazal has a deep list of tandoori breads — 12 besides the complimentary plain — and all we tried were superb. A basic naan comes with every dinner, browned and bubbly, but that should just get you started. The peshawari naan ($3.95) has raisins and almonds, and is a little sweet. Broccoli naan ($3.95) is the savory answer, flecked with green bits and Indian pickle. Desi paratha ($3.95), actually a skillet bread, is like a buttery tostada. Have a couple of these and you won't care about the size of the entrées.

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