Little India: Spicing up Merivale

LITTLE INDIA: Spicing up Merivale.
LITTLE INDIA: Spicing up Merivale.

Life is about dealing with crossroads. The thinking stops and a decision must be made. You get off the fence and take off the safety harness. You blurt out "hot" when the waitress asks how you would like the Bengali fish main you've just ordered.

And so it was one Friday night as the rain thrummed against the windows. Not a flicker passed her face as she wrote far too many words on the pad. Words, perhaps, such as Empty The Chilli Jar For This Fool?

Hmmm, I began scrambling for that fence, but she was gone and the die was cast.

Little India in Merivale is as good a place as any to break old mild-to-medium habits. I always regarded the Little India in pre-quake Gloucester St highly and once rated its lunchtime rogan josh the best of three I had tried around the CBD.

At Merivale, it was packed as tight as the chilli jar before my order. The heavy demands on the kitchen gave plenty of time to take in the orange-and-brown colour scheme that immediately brought to mind a couch of

Mum's from the early 1980s. And yet this is a swish, modern spot with a classy menu that speaks eloquently of the chain's founders' story.

Indian menus can be intimidatingly large. There are so many possibilities that after ordering you end up a mixture of disappointed at what you might be missing out on and excited about what's to come. Little India's no exception, but we spread the net as widely as possible with a shared vegetarian platter to start.

It had a mix of samosas, pakoras (plain vegetable and paneer with cheese and spinach), bahjis, and paneer aloo tikki (potatoes, cheese, onions, coriander in a pattie). Two accompanying dipping sauces - tamarind and a yoghurt-style sauce of indeterminate style - were watery. The platter was fun but very filling.

From the mounds of deep-fried spicy treats, best liked were the pakoras - spicy cumin flavoured nuggets of crispness and heat. Then came the onion bahjis, but it was all a bit too much of deep-fried chickpea batter.

Worryingly, when the empty platter was cleared we felt full. Yet three mains, rice, a salad and a garlic naan were still to come . . .

A lamb korma and a butter chicken were good examples of these most accessible of Indian dishes.

Both were creamy and mild and the meat super tender. The lamb dish perhaps teetered on bland, with the spices lost in the beige pond of gravy.

The butter chicken had more oomph and featured a dark concentrated tomato paste flavour in the background, but this dish was rated highly by the others.

Then there was the fish curry. Like all the mains, it came in a two-handled steel bowl. It was hot. My lips went numb, my eyes watered, my mouth burned and yet I was enjoying it. The fish was fillets of gurnard. Despite the chilli onslaught, amazingly, I could taste it.

A fish curry goes screamingly against the mantra of letting fish speak for itself with the lightest of cooking touches, but here it seemed to belong, swimming in its bowl of hot, spicy gravy.

The basmati rice and naan bread became sanctuaries of flavour dilution, but then I eagerly jumped back to the fish.

Bad memories of all those bland school-night meals devoid of onion and other child untouchables were blown into the weeds by this palate blast.

Dessert was a simple, delicately flavoured, mango ice-cream produced just for Little India. It was delightful, but I suspect my burning mouth would have seen any ice-cream as food from the gods.

Little India is a chain, but it does what it does with style and with a genuine effort at authenticity. It's good value and filling.

Driving home I sneezed about nine times and no I didn't have a cold. But a couple of days later I discovered a growing hunger for something properly hot and spicy again. Is that how addiction starts?

Little India Where: Merivale Mall, 189 Papanui Rd. Ph 355 8330 When: lunch 11.30am-2pm; dinner 7 days from 5pm How much: starters from $6.50 and up to $23 for mains. Desserts, $6-$10. Upside:Great value and authentic flavours.

Downside: Fighting for a Merivale Mall car park in the pouring rain.

The Press