The Indian Clove Plays Its Drums of Heaven
If you were riding a bike to the restaurant, you'd toil uphill on curving Victory Boulevard past Mexican bodegas and Sri Lankan lunch counters to the top of the precipice, where high-rise apartment houses look down on Staten Island's glimmering Silver Lake. After admiring the view from the colonnade, your ride resumes with a breathtaking descent, while you clutch desperately at the brakes. Nearly at the bottom of the hill, pull up at Clove Lake Road and park. Before you stands the Indian Clove.
Despite its obscure location not far from Staten Island's Atlantic coast, this slightly upscale spot might be the great multi-regional Indian restaurant we've all been waiting for. While the menu is still rooted in meaty, brown-gravied Punjabi cuisine, it's also packed with regional delicacies from north and south, in addition to Indo-Chinese, Sri Lankan, and the stray Afghani dish or two. From tandoori lobster to "drums of heaven" (a spicy chicken-drumstick appetizer), the menu doesn't have a boring moment.
The quizzically named chicken 65 ($6.95) falls within the Indo-Chinese canon, a generous plate of McNuggets gone berserk in a bright-red buttermilk marinade. Fried till they resemble cheap leather, these morsels develop concentrated ginger and garlic flavors. From the same cuisine, chili fish is almost as good—a brace of flounder fillets dry-rubbed, crumbed, and fried, offered as an app. Order a flatbread to go with it—the opulent Kashmiri naan, pregnant with coconut and dried fruit, will do just fine—and you've got a great makeshift entrée.
Other regional highlights include chicken chettinad ($13.95), from Tamil Nadu in southern India. It features bird fragments bobbing in a sauce of coconut milk and onions, spicy enough to make your brow glisten. The stew is attributed to a cultural group called the Chettinars, who expatriated en masse in the late 19th century from the subcontinent in search of business opportunities, apparently leaving only their recipes and reputation for spicy food behind in India. Make sure you ask for it hot, or a bland version will be sent to your table.
Goan fish curry ($16.95), named for a former Portuguese colony on India's west coast, proves to be big chunks of white fish in a tart tamarind sauce that will also singe your oral cavity. Mughal fare from the north has rarely been so well served as in malai kofta ($11.95): massive globes (twice the usual circumference) made of pounded vegetables, cashews, and cheese curds, poached in delicate beige gravy. This is the dish's best evocation in the city and a real find for vegetarians.
Are you a fan of tandoori? The Indian Clove has one of Gotham's most diverse lists. In fact, mounted in a glassed-in pillbox at the rear of the premises, the clay tandoor oven—which probably originated in Central Asia but was popularized in 1920s Delhi—is the focus of the restaurant's decor. All tables in the parallel bar and dining areas seem to point toward it. Seen from the waist up, the tandoori chef looks like a DJ scratching at his turntables.
From Afghanistan comes the recipe for a tandoor-roasted lamb kebab marinated in yogurt ($15.95), the de-sworded cubes supremely tender for a change. (In many Indian restaurants, the lamb kebabs are as tough as toenails.) Chicken kebabs memorably marinated in mint are a northern Indian oddity, good enough to make me relax my rule to never order boneless chicken breast for any reason. But best is bihari kebab—a frankly weird mixture of ground lamb and ground chicken formed into cylinders and rammed lengthwise onto skewers. The shape guarantees maximum absorption of smoke with minimum cooking time. How eco-friendly!
I'm bound to warn you about a couple of invented dishes. One, a salad of fresh figs, oranges, and ho-hum baby lettuces, arrives totally under-dressed. The other is gobi honey garlic, a choice within the Indo-Chinese roster featuring thickly breaded cauliflower florets drowned in sugar syrup. It tastes just plain awful. By contrast, the best dish on the entire menu is a Sri Lankan street snack—a palm offered, perhaps, to Staten Island's Sri Lankan population, whose cafés you saw on your ride up the hill. Deposited in a bowl, Ceylon egg roti ($6.95) consists of shredded flatbreads, scrambled eggs, and curry spices in a big heap, which it is your duty to toss with the green and brown chutneys provided.
Sated, and feeling several pounds heavier, you scramble back on your bike. See if you don't set course for the longer seaside route along Bay Street's corniche—anything to avoid going over that mountain again.
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