I’m not a fan of group meals at restaurants. By group, I mean more than four people. (More truthful, two people.) The difficulty in procuring a table, the dietary preferences and restrictions that have to be considered, conversation topics that are not inclusive—these are all challenges that are easier to overcome as a solo or deuce. The work group meal (lunch, naturally) is even more problematic. Not only is there often more people, but the ease of finding a restaurant that everyone can agree upon in addition to accommodating the group’s size, its various dietary restrictions, and its budget constraints can make the endeavour seem futile. But, collegiality.
In more than one workplace of mine, Indian buffets save the day. Or rather, the regular delivery of fresh naan bread does. The approaching line of chafing dishes never inspires much confidence: there is little variation in flavour profile; you always have to search for small pieces of protein within large pools of sauces; there is an overuse of cream and ghee; and often when you reach the saag paneer, all that’s left is saag.
But I feel the buffet mode of eating Indian, saucy family-style dishes eaten over rice and with naan, is the de facto mode of how most Westerners view the cuisine, even when someone is familiar with a dish like dosas. Even when I had the chance to eat at the amazing and arguably high-end Vij’s in Vancouver, the baskets of naan and bowls of rice were still there to ground me in family-style dining. These feelings are not confined to Indian cuisine, obviously. It is probably more rare (and absurd) to prepare meals with a single plate as the goal. But, my visit to Indian Accent was the first time outside of ordering a dosa or a thali where eating Indian could occur with nary a thought of a group.
I did, however, dine with a friend, and when I asked her about going to the restaurant, I described it as “fancy Indian.” Fancy in my Prairie-girl speak means expensive, but in this case, it was also to underscore that we would not be sharing metal bowls of aloo gobi. Indian Accent only offers three-, four-, or chef’s-choice tasting menus. No one is stopping you from sharing, but the plating and portioning is designed per diner. All the other fancy restaurant trappings are there: gorgeous space, attentive service, nice beverage offerings, and importantly in this city, ample elbow room.
Indian Accent is not serving fusion cuisine, however, and I find it unfair to describe it as “elevated.” It is morphing the mode of delivery into one that is not often associated with Indian cuisine, and additionally, at a much higher price. Addictive leavened breads will still help round out your meal, and rice can make an appearance, but traditional only occurs with familiar flavours and aromas, not always in execution. For example, the keema is made with tofu instead of the more common red meat. I couldn’t imagine it being any better with beef or lamb. The small pao (rolls) that came with it looked forgettable until I was hit with the flavour of the lime leaf upon first bite. The spicing of everything was very tame, and I don’t know if that was coincidental to the ordered dishes or to safeguard the clientele of a midtown restaurant. Sauces were poured tableside, which makes for less pretty pictures, but more dramatic plating. Given how complex and delicious they were, I would be pleased to see chafing dishes full of them; I would line up with a soup bowl. The kulchas (stuffed naan) were a definite highlight, but their size was unfortunate given their price as supplements. We were told that one kulcha would be enough for the two of us; we wished that we’d ordered three. I love kheer, even when it’s too runny or too plain, but my new standard is Indian Accent’s version. The additional texture of the crispy vermicelli noodles and the additional richness of the ice cream were welcome with open arms.
Freebies like amuses are appreciated, but they didn’t quite take away the sting of the bill or that craving for another kulcha. A dinner here is definitely Prairie-girl fancy, but it is on par for a signature restaurant in a midtown hotel steps from Central Park. I had to remind myself of that. It’s unfair to compare it to the $13.95 tab at the buffet—especially when the mignardises at Indian Accent were so much better than any free-for-all bowl of candied fennel seeds I’ve dipped into.