Flavor // Punjabi punch

When re-crossing the border from Mexico, the first thing I crave is a Caesar salad. Returning from China, pizza’s on my mind. After a September sojourn in India, however, I headed straight for Darbar, Uptown’s new Indian restaurant, seeking hair of the dog. Clearly I’m addicted to the subcontinent’s vibrant flavors, but don’t send the 12-steppers my way. Just keep the korma coming.

Darbar India Grill & Bar has redesigned the site of a former Mexican establishment. A stunning bar/lounge gives way to a sleek, cosmo dining room, uncluttered with the typical tchochkes that found their way into my suitcase. Launched by the family behind Eden Prairie’s India Palace and others, its extensive menu celebrates the rich Punjabi victuals of India’s northern region, boosted by choice products such as locally raised, free range chicken and hand-tossed breads from its tandoor oven.

And oh, those breads are good! Fortunately for the greedy/undecided, a bread basket option includes three varieties of your choice. The butter-brushed roti, fashioned from whole wheat, proved the perfect vehicle to convey tasty bites from plate to palate. Aloo naan, stuffed with cumin and coriander-scented potatoes, put smiles on our faces, as did the Peshawari version, plumped with nuts, raisins and coconut.

Scanning the app list ($5–11), we settled on more aloo, aka spuds. Three sturdy cakes came seasoned with cumin, cilantro and a chickpea curry topping, assisted by dipping sauces of moderately kicky mint/jalapeno and modestly sweet/sour tamarind. An order of mixed pakora brought patties of veggies (too few) caught in a chickpea batter (too thick and boring).

Then, to stop me from weeping into my napkin when forced to pare my wish list, we ordered way too much food. But because it’s been long-simmered, reheating those doggie bags only enriches the flavors. (At least, that’s my alibi for excess.)

The chicken shahi korma, with chunks of white meat swimming in a creamy sauce along with cashews and raisins and cubes of paneer — the compact Indian version of cottage cheese — proved sweet and mellow in equal measure, while the lamb vindaloo, highlighting tender, meaty chunks mingling with potatoes in a “spicy, tangy curry sauce,” proved tasty, for sure, but much milder (and this is not a good thing) than the fiery vindaloos served elsewhere in the metro. Actually, every dish, which we ordered spicy, came too tame for our cravings.

Vegetarian winners included palek paneer — more cheese cubes bobbing in a rich puree of spinach and cream, a comfort food if there ever was one. Our fave, however, was the bangan bhartha, a mélange of charcoal-baked eggplant, pureed and mined with tomatoes, onions and green peas. All entrees ($11–15) come with fine-grained basmati rice.

What to drink? Kingfisher, of course. But Darbar features other nations’ beers and cocktails, too. It also heralds a global list of wines, including several from India. I’d visited several wineries on my trip and became a convert to how well they paired with their native food, so we drank an easygoing Indian cab ($21). An Indian chardonnay also is listed, although, as I’d discovered, a sauv blanc or viognier makes a better partner for those lusty spices.

Finally appeared rasmalai, compliments of the house. While most Indian desserts are supersweet or sweeter, this one, composed of paneer afloat in condensed milk and sprinkled with pistachios, soothed wonderfully.  There’s also mango ice cream and pudding for those who dread a dental visit. 

Darbar India Grill & Bar

1221 W. Lake St.