My love affair with Indian food began innocently enough -- as all great love stories do -- back in the1980s. I was on a return flight from the United Kingdom when I noticed an unusual food-related aroma wafting from the front of the plane. As it turns out, the chicken dish aboard that Air India flight was a bit different than the usual airline fare: On that momentous day, I was presented with tandoori chicken with jasmine-basmati rice.
It was the rice that changed my life -- so exotic, so fragrant. Growing up, rice came in two boxed variations. One was white and fluffy and could be cooked in 60 seconds, and the other was a salty West Coast import considered to be a treat for folks residing in the San Francisco area.
Here, back on the ground in Pittsburgh, India Garden has a lot to offer an Indian-food fanatic like myself; there are two locations to choose from and more than 100 items on its extensive menu.
Upon entering the Oakland location, we're greeted by the deep rich aromas of curry, garlic, ginger and cumin, each dancing into one another in a whirl of delight -- or perhaps I'm confusing the dancing spices with the spicy dancing emanating from two large televisions bathing the room in light, images and sounds of a recent Bollywood production. The room has an opulent darkness infused with red lighting, gold ornamentation and the colorful glow of the lively film.
This location also offers a 50 percent-off dinner special daily from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. Not everything on the menu is half off, but with more than 30 items on special, it is a considerable selection for any late-night-biter.
We opt for two dishes, including one from the half-off menu. The vegetarian tarka daal features black lentils with onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. It is an incredibly fresh-tasting dish and we were pleasantly surprised to bite into so many delicious pieces of fresh ginger. From the tandoori specialty menu we ordered salmon tikka kabab, a tantalizing dish with fresh hunks of salmon marinated overnight in a delicious mix of spices, then charcoal-fired in a clay oven. Heavenly. I was tempted to finish off the meal with an Indian beer, but instead I capped the evening with a rose lassi, a yogurt drink mixed with red-rose extract; the lassi was smooth and fragrant, just the thing to take the spicy edge off the meal.
On another occasion we sampled India Garden's lunch buffet at its Monroeville location. Here, the dining area has a pinkish-red hue that is at once comforting and relaxing. The buffet on this day offers nine entrÃ©e choices including three variations on chicken -- tandoori, tikka masala and curry. Being pescatarians, we indulged our appetites with the veggie dishes, including matar paneer, channa masala, aloo palak, yellow daal and aloo tikki samosas. My dining partner especially enjoyed the bhindi masala -- baby okra sautÃ©ed with tomatoes and onions.
Everything was so good that I found myself making way too many trips to the buffet. And then I went home and slowly slipped into a well-earned korma.