DELICIOUS VARIETY A selection of flavors from Aroma.
Driving into the South Portland complex at 200 Gorham Road the other night we had to slow to a crawl to avoid hitting all the kids dressed up for a pre-prom dinner. We suddenly felt underdressed, and worried about getting a table at Aroma, South Portland's newest Indian restaurant. High school hipsters in California always eat Indian before prom. We figured the trend had arrived in Maine.
Turns out they were headed to the Olive Garden. Perhaps they had heard that some of Olive Garden's chefs are trained at the company's Culinary Institute of Tuscany (in Italy!). At Aroma Indian Cuisine next door, the kitchen staff seem to have been trained at the India's Culinary Institute of Actually Being from India — southern India to be specific. It's a larger and less formal institution, but one I suspect has more soul. The result is a sprawling menu, with an unusually large selection of fragrant rice dishes, as well as a section of crepes, pancakes, and doughnuts.
Aroma's naan is fresh, piping hot, and a wonderful balance of soft and chewy, and ready to complement your choice of mains. Aroma places great pride in its freshly ground spices — the menu uses peppers and spices to spell the restaurant's name. You can taste the result in every dish.
The rice dishes illustrated this especially well, since the spices could do their work without getting diffused in a creamy sauce. The biryani featured sharp black pepper underscored by a milder blend of yellow curry. The spices clung to the big pieces of chicken, and suffused the rice in a subtler way. Lemon rice mingled the citrus notes with hints of mustard, ginger, and turmeric.
But Aroma is doing great things with sauces as well, often by using their spices with restraint. The dark, thin saag, for example, is modestly spiced, which highlights the bitter flavor of the spinach and the lamb. The big pieces of meat were as tender, juicy, and richly flavored as the best lamb chops. The spices in the navaratan koorma were similarly mild. The creamy sauce had just a hint of nutty flavor, and among the mix of vegetables the cauliflower and green beans were the most assertive.
Aroma showed a similar care in cooking vegetables, for example in their version of vankaya koora, in which the eggplant had been cooked to maximum tenderness without becoming mushy. In this dish the eggplant is often stuffed, but at Aroma it is diced into big pieces and simmered until it's suffused with the flavors of cinnamon, coconut, and mild chilis. Our favorite dish was the gobi Manchurian. Pieces of cauliflower had been lightly breaded, fried, and tossed in a sauce infused with garlic and red chilis. The result seemed vaguely Chinese, like a Szechuan Chicken but with tender vegetable instead of pieces of chicken. The bitter vegetal flavor of the cauliflower stood up to the seasoning surprisingly well.
Aroma's décor is nice enough — with tables of dark red wood, attractive yellow lamps, and a midnight blue carpet with Miro-esque shapes and squiggles. The one prom couple that was there did not look too out of place in their formal clothes. But the best dresses were two gorgeous purple numbers worn by the young daughters of an Indian family that had pushed many tables together for their party of 12. We wanted to go dancing with that group. Too bad we lacked the tux and the limo.
Brian Duff can be reached at email@example.com.
AROMA INDIAN CUISINE | 200 Gorham Rd, South Portland | Tues-Sun: lunch buffet 11:30 am-3 pm; dinner 5-9:30 pm | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.512.2200