STRONG COLORS, LOVELY FLAVORS The gems of Indian cuisine.
Young people in Biddeford like to call it "the Biddo," and think of it as a dreary seaside ghetto. There may be some truth to that, though Biddeford does have some of Maine's best surf spots — I won't say where, and the locals won't either. But people from Biddeford will happily tell you, in a tone meant to convince someone not likely to believe it, "we actually have really good Indian food here." I checked and it's true: the Biddo's got good Indian, at the Jewel of India — a family-run place in a little spot downtown.
I know Portlanders who used to drive down just to eat there (local's tip: use the Saco exit). But now the Jewel of India has opened a new location in South Portland. The huge white building needs some shingles and paint, and the dining room doesn't really charm, but what is happening back in the kitchen is pretty terrific. Whichever of Indian cuisine's variety of flavors and textures you ask them to concoct — creamy, nutty, sharp, spicy, sweet, minty, crunchy, sour — Jewel of India executes it well.
Among the appetizers, the samosa and tikki offered two variations on a theme. The crunchy pucks of the tikki were filled with a soft curried potato and spotted with peas. The pyramids of the samosa had more crispy breading, and more peas, onions, and herbs mixed in with the milder curried potato. Both were terrific with a dollop of thick mint chutney — which seemed to get its beautiful green color and sharp flavor from having been made with freshly diced mint and onion — and a drizzle of the sweet-sour tamarind. A pakora fritter was filled with onion, and while it was the brightest yellow it actually had the least curry spice. We liked the fritters better mashed up in a sweet masala sauce as an entrée.
Generally it is the entrées where Jewel of India shows its real strengths. The bengan bharta — with a sauce based on roasted eggplant, was a symphony of sharp notes. It opened with a burst of aroma that made me anticipate more heat than the dish actually contained. Instead, the fresh ingredients — eggplant, tomato, onion, garlic, green pepper, each of which offers some bite without spicy heat — take turns gently pricking your palate. The chicken korma is more soothing to the tongue. The best part of this dish was the crunchy nuttiness the sauce was lent by all the thin slices of almond. They clung to juicy pieces of white and dark chicken in a creamy and mild curry sauce.
Lamb Janeman's flavors — tomato, mushrooms, garlic — were almost Italian except for the hint of curry that lingered in your nose after each bite. The very tender pieces of lamb were mixed with many many slices of soft stewed mushroom. A chef's special offered a saag with big pieces of tandoor chicken. The reddish spices of the meat peeked out through the dark greens of the creamy diced spinach. There was neither too much oil nor too much spice, so you could appreciate the flavor of the vegetable.