Like an ocean liner, the two-story restaurant thrusts its prow into Seventh Avenue's lapping waves of traffic. Indeed, the downstairs dining room at Mainland India, clad in white linen, resembles a cruise ship refectory. The atmosphere is serene, the waitstaff starched and deferentialexcept when hounding you to buy wine and cocktails. The premises was once an outpost of 6th Street's Mitali; then it was Rangoli, a northern India spot that tried to stretch the limits of Punjabi cuisine by adding extra lamb dishes and piling on the chiles. The food was tasty but ultimately failed to connect with enough diners.
While Mainland India is still rooted in northern Indian cuisine, it now casts its nets much further in search of regional specialties from southern states like Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, reaching for unusual ingredients in the process. From Andhra Pradesh comes gosht gongura ($13.95), a thick lamb stew muddled with sour gongura, a dark leafy relative of hibiscus. The Keralan cooking on the menu couldn't be more different. Utilizing cubes of the same tender lamb, uppu curry ($13.95) is a gravy-free stir-fry flavored with red onions, curry leaves, and matchsticks of ginger. It seems the further south you go, the more gingery the cooking becomes.
For the Indian-food aficionado, the menu is a wonderland. Though the lotus is a national symbol of India, it rarely makes its way onto South Asian menus. Kokur nadu ($12.95) is a thick stew from Kashmirwhere 79,000 are dead from earthquakessubtly flavoring chicken with nigella, black seeds that impart an oniony taste. It comes decorated with crunchy slices of fried lotus root that look like misshapen bicycle wheels. One of the most unusual ingredients on the menu is arvi, which sounds like a nerdy Brooklyn neighbor. Also known as Indian potato, elephant ear (for its massive, fleshy green leaves), and Colocasia esculentum, this yellowish bulb has a soft, creamy texture that is perfectly showcased in dam ke arbi ($9.95), where it comes drenched in mild tomato sauce, a boon to those bored with regular spuds (not me).
But regional thinking is no guarantee that the final product will be good. Despite their pretty yellow sauces, the Bengali chicken fricassee called murgi jhol and the Andhra Pradesh shrimp stew rayola koora are unbearably dull to eat. Be forewarned that some dishes are misdescribed, or maybe the restaurant is prone to substitutions. Kathal malai kofta, for example, is described as jackfruit and paneer dumplings. One evening, the three oblong fritters flecked with cheese contained no fruit, while the bright orange sauce tasted more like mango than jackfruit. Still, it was one of the better dishes, savory and pungent.
It's usually a good idea to skip the uninspired appetizers in Indian restaurants, which impede the arrival of the already slow entrées. Still, that would be a mistake at Mainland India, and not only because the appetizers represent an especially good deal. Who could fail to love the tawa crab ($8.95), a whitish heap of sweet, fibrous seafood tossed with coconut and lots of black pepper? For the tender tongued, there's a version of tandoori chicken ($11.95) that makes a great shared appetizer. Best of all, it arrives without the usual sizzling platterso you don't have to tear off your stinking, grease-drenched shirt as soon as you get home.
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