Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

One hidden location, two different Clay Ovens

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My first problem with the new Clay Oven was in finding it. Like those on Pembina -- only worse -- the address numbers on Kenaston mean nothing because you can't see them, and you certainly can't slow down on this busy road to try and find them. So if you plan a visit, watch for the Kenaston Common shopping centre.

Then remember that the restaurant is at the same entrance, along the same side road as Indigo Books and a Starbucks. By the time of my second visit I had it down pat. But then, when leaving, I must have circled for a good 10 minutes before I could find my way out. I mention all the above as an aid to readers who plan a visit. And good luck.

Luck is what you may need when you do get there. My second problem was in deciding how many stars to award this branch of the Inkster Boulevard original, to which I had given four stars. If I'd had only one meal at this new one -- the second meal -- it would have been four stars also.

Unfortunately, the first meal would have rated two stars, at best.

But first the good news. It's an attractive place, with a sophisticated decor done in shades of chocolate brown and ivory, solid dark tables with comfortable chairs or well-padded booths, and a few discreet hide-away tables separated by curtains in a raised area. On my second visit the greeting was warm, the service impeccable, and the food, with one exception, delicious.

It started with papri chat -- a cool mixture of crisp wafers and chickpeas in a tamarind-streaked yogurt sauce, and good, despite the absence of the promised potatoes ($5.99). We also liked the nicely spiced pakora vegetable fritters (four for $6.99). Among the entrées that followed, only butter chicken disappointed -- the rich and velvety tomato-based sauce was luscious, but the bland chunks of tandoori-cooked chicken tasted like intruders, as though they'd just been added as an afterthought.

But bindi masala -- succulent pieces of okra mixed with tomatoes and onions -- was wonderful ($12.99), and so was the lamb curry in its pungent brown gravy ($14.99). The deluxe biryani was nicely seasoned, and loaded with good-tasting shrimp and chunks of tender lamb, as well as slightly dry chicken (from the tandoor), although I did miss the sparkle and crunch that is added by the raisins and cashews found in many other biryanis.

The bad news is about the first visit, which could have been to some other restaurant. Rarely have I had such an unsmiling, icy-cold greeting. Had I done something to offend? I wondered. But I hadn't been there long enough to offend -- I had just entered, and that coldness remained throughout, until I paid the bill. I became obsessed, and (with a clear view of the entrance) watched as every other party, coming and going, went through the same deep freeze.

The greeting was followed by service that was inept from start to finish.

One waiter gave us totally wrong information about a certain dish, and then, after taking our orders, vanished, never to return. Twenty minutes later we buttonholed another waiter, who produced our appetizers immediately. It went on and on, and only wonderful food might have been compensation for a situation so farcical we ended up laughing. And, with only one exception, we didn't get wonderful food.

Our lassi drinks were refreshing, albeit thinner on the yogurt than most I've had, but $5 was a shocking price for a drink that rarely reaches $3 elsewhere. Skimpily-filled samosas were dry (two for $5.99) . Alloo tikki potato cakes were moister but unexceptional in flavour (two for $5.99, or $6.99 with chickpeas).

Memories of the delicious goat chops on Inkster led me to order them here too, and they were the one bright spot of the meal -- falling-off-the-bone tender and wonderfully flavourful, in a yogurt sauce infused with ginger and garlic ($15.99). But although the shrimp in the prawns malabar were big and plump, they had no taste whatsoever, and the sauce tasted harsh despite the presence of coconut milk ($15.99).

Worst of all was the tandoori chicken, which ought to have been a safe choice in a restaurant that is named for its tandoor oven. But this one had little taste of a marinade and was chokingly dry to the point of literal inedibility. Most of it remained uneaten on its plate, and was removed without comment by the waiter. We pointed out the problem, but it still turned up on the bill -- $11.99 for a half chicken.

One can sample two interesting and relatively rare South Indian specialties at a painless $1 each -- the somewhat bland idli, a steamed ground rice and lentil dumpling, which comes with particularly good mint and tomato chutneys, and the vada, a spicy doughnut-shaped fritter of ground lentils.

Only rice is included with the entrées. Pappadums will set you back another $3.99, but you'll want a bread to sop up the sauces, so opt for a big puffy naan at $2.29. There's no buffet, but there are thali trays that offer rice, four main dishes, salad, yogurt and a sweet (from $10.99 to $11.99 at lunch, and $11.99 to $12.99 at dinner).

You can have six different wee Indian pastries for $6.99, but if they are too sweet for your taste, the creamy, cardamom scented rice pudding is a good alternative ($3.99).

* * *

Clarification: White Rock Cafe at 725 Gateway Rd., reviewed last week, is closed on Mondays.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2009 d3

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