Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Meals worthy of another jewel in the Crown

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When writing my January bargain columns I have always combined partial reviews of at least two previously reviewed restaurants, without stars. This time I am breaking with that tradition. When a restaurant shows enough improvement to raise its star level, I feel it is only fair -- to both the restaurant and readers -- to write a new and full review.

Samosa Crown has an obscure location in a big strip mall, about a block south of Inkster Boulevard (look for the big Dairy Queen sign). It's a small place, with a small menu, and tables that are slightly cramped. But the setting is pleasant, with putty coloured walls and cherry red tables, the colour (my designer friend tells me) that is most effective in stimulating the appetite.

But they don't need colour to stimulate the appetite here -- that's done by the aromas of cumin, coriander, turmeric and that catch-all blend called curry that hit you as soon as you walk through the door. And those aromas won't let you down -- the food tastes as good as it smells. So good in fact, I felt I had to upgrade the original three-and-a-half stars to four. But note; the stars are for the la carte menu (more about the buffet later).

There's no lamb or beef; the only choices for carnivores are chicken and goat, prepared in various styles. There is a fish pakora, and also a shrimp dish, which wasn't available on my visits. But everything we did have was vibrant with complex flavours, albeit not hair-raisingly spicy. We weren't asked how hot we wanted our food, but what we got was spicy enough for our taste. If you want yours scorching, let them know.

Most main courses cost from $8.99 to $14.99, and probably the star turn (today, as it was a few years ago) is the goat curry -- succulent chunks of it, stewed in a thick, dark and robust curry sauce. Have it and you won't miss lamb at all. The la carte tandoori chicken was also deliciously moist and tender, under an unusually scarlet (not orange) and almost saucy glaze on the surface -- nippier and different than most I've had. Fork-tender morsels of butter chicken were cloaked in a silken smooth sauce tinged pink from tomatoes.

Actually, there are more vegetarian dishes than meats, and they are excellent. Most noteworthy, possibly, was the exceptional Kashmiri aloo of potatoes stuffed with housemade cheese, raisins and cashews and bathed in a thick, creamy sauce. They didn't have my favourite okra masala, but the eggplant bhartha -- slightly smoky roasted eggplant mashed with onions and tomatoes -- was wonderful, and the dal makhani black lentils -- cooked in butter with ginger and garlic, and finished under a rich blanket of cream -- was a rare and wonderful new treat for me.

I don't expect buffets to match the quality of cooked to order dishes, although when I reviewed Samosa Crown a few years ago I was surprised by how close many of them were to their la carte counterparts. The buffets are still good value at $10.99 for lunch, $12.99 at dinner, and they are notable for the fact that the spicing -- among the veggies, mostly -- hasn't been dumbed down, as it so often is on Indian buffets. But although everything tasted fresh and hot, the buffet meats were not as impressive as they had been.

The best of them was simply called spicy chicken, small tender pieces in a fine, spicy tomato-based sauce. The goat curry was pretty good, apart from the occasional chunks of gristle, and a sauce that was less fragrant than the la carte version. Butter chicken was pleasant, if slightly bland, and satisfaction with the tandoori chicken might depend on which piece you get -- some were acceptable, others dry.

The buffet shone brightest among the vegetables, which offered a wide range of options, as well as some of the best and most interesting items, among them the great crunchy mixed-vegetable pakora (but not the pakora of near-raw cauliflower). Other best veggies included a cold dish of potatoes and peas, chickpeas in a mellow masala sauce, and a mixture of eggplant with other veggies. There are also such western dishes as coleslaw, and even a surprisingly not-at-all bad Greek salad.

Also available is a rare and easily missed surprise hidden on a lower shelf, so be sure to look for the fascinating bel puri, tissue-thin pastry shells that you puncture, fill with chick peas, bits of potato and tamarind sauce, then dip into flavoured water and pop into your mouth -- carefully, and preferably (to avoid a trip to the dry cleaners) over your plate.

Crisp pappadums are included with the buffet, as well as a lovely and not too sweet rice pudding, scented with cardamom and, possibly, rose water. There's also a cooler filled with la carte Indian sweets, including the flavourful and intriguing carrot halwa pudding. Puffy naans and potato-stuffed parathas were both first rate, and if you find some of the spicing too fiery you can take the edge off with a cooling yoghurt-based lassi, or the light, Indian Kingfisher beer.

The Indian music may be blaring full blast, but the staff are very accommodating about turning it down. In fact, and despite problems in communication, they are accommodating about everything.

For another star upgrade, see next week's column.

For the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed by the Free Press, see the map below or click here.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 13, 2012 D3


Updated on Friday, January 13, 2012 at 9:17 AM CST: Adds map, fact box

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