Livening up Wharf Street

Passage to India has real potential
By BRIAN DUFF  |  March 19, 2008

Passage To India | 29 Wharf St, Portland | Mon-Sat 11 am-10 pm; Sun 11 am-8 pm | V/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.772.0072
Passage to India is considered to be one of the best restaurants in the New England area, and is consistently rated among the top Indian restaurants in America and worldwide. At least that is what the restaurant's Web site says — verbatim. And all this accomplished in just a few months! Having visited, I think it is an overstatement. But while small-scale inaccuracies — like the Emperor VIP Club’s Web site description of “Kristen” as a talented musician and a lithe 105 pounds — are bothersome, a glorious and monumental overstatement can be transcendent. The one leaves us feeling manipulated, while the other invites the spirit to soar untethered from reality, like a good Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

Passage to India’s bombastic self-description is typical of the oddball charms that allow it to enliven what was once my least favorite restaurant space in the city — the Wharf Street building once occupied by Soffrito. Good Indian food can redeem mediocre surroundings, as it proved in the late 20th century by redeeming England. The restaurant still looks a little bit like a Swiss chalet, and the staircase still creates a gaping hole in the front of the room that separates all the tables from the smallish windows. But the space feels more cozy and less dingy now. Two flat-screen televisions were distractingly showing the news when they should have been showing Bollywood films. It was fun to order Indian from an ambiguously Slavic waitress. The multilingual owner enjoys pleasantly confusing small talk with the customers, many of whom he remembers from his years running Hi Bombay.

The menu is familiar too, and the food is prepared with similar care and expertise. Our curries arrived quickly in a bright array of colors in stainless steel bowls. The big juicy chunks of ground lamb in the keema matar soaked in a thin, slightly oily yellow curry spotted with fresh herbs. Crunchy seeds and shards of chewy, barky, fragrant spice spot the broth — as they do most sauces at Passage to India, which is a very good sign about their approach to curry. Another good sign was the very tender chunks of dark chicken in the jalfrozie — just a touch creamy with wilted onions and peppers. The chicken tikka masala offered big slices of breast in a fragrant light-orange yogurt sauce specked with green and black herbs and a smoky undercurrent of tomato.

Our table had a somewhat mixed reaction to the Bengali honey shrimp — one of the menu’s more unusual offerings. Big, fat, tightly curled shrimp soaked in a thin, chutney-like sauce hit the tongue very sweet and then left a lingering heat. We all liked the soft, nutty vegetable pakora entree, and the very good nan, which is light and not too oily.

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