Location: 10 St. Francis Way. No. 6, Cranberry. 724-772-9191
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-7; entrees $10-15
Atmosphere: Indian diner
"Indian food." To skeptics and connoisseurs alike, the phrase probably conjures a specific set of images, textures, flavors and aromas which we have learned, through many meals at Indian restaurants, to associate with subcontinental cuisine. But really, "Indian food" is so preposterously broad as to be utterly nondescriptive. Like "Italian food" or "Mexican food" or even "American food," the term is merely a convenient shorthand. It describes a vast panoply of ingredients and preparations -- combined according to the traditions of different regions, terrains and climates -- within the cultural simmer that is India.
Lately, Pittsburgh diners have had the luxury of choosing between "northern" and "southern" styles of Indian cuisine. Northern, with its famous tandoor, curries and rice, still predominates, but more bread-oriented southern Indian-style cooking is available at several local establishments. This is a happy development, but as lovers of Indian cuisine, we long to push the envelope much, much further, to know the subtleties of Bengali, Punjabi, Maharashtran and other new-to-us Indian food.
So, where are we going with all of this? To Cranberry, surprisingly enough. Just off I-79, catering-venture-turned-restaurant Flavor of India, offers themed buffets from a variety of Indian regions on different weekend nights.
Unfortunately, we found this out by showing up on a night without such a buffet. Undaunted, we set about sampling from the everyday menu, which was standard northern-style, replete with tandoori and thickly sauced curries. We started with samosa chaat -- a dish itself once rare in local restaurants but now fairly common. We were pleased with Flavor of India's version, which featured large chunks of warm, potato-stuffed samosa topped with chickpeas, tamarind chutney, yogurt and fresh herbs. Elsewhere, we have had chaats based on fried triangles of bread for a more nacho-like effect. But we found Flavor's use of broken-up samosas a particularly effective foil for the cool-to-the-tongue toppings, especially satisfying on a cold winter night.
The tandoori mixed grill featured a half-dozen meats, most coated in a sauce whose brilliant coral color was almost otherworldy, even by tandoori standards. It was slathered on thickly, too, so that our bites of meat included creamy coatings of the sauce itself, not just its residue. The salmon, still translucent and succulent within, and lamb, perfectly spiced without overwhelming the moist flesh, were standouts. The shrimp were cooked well, but the coating was a bit much for such delicate meat, while the white meat tikka chicken, lacking a yogurt marinade, tended to be dry.
Angelique typically orders lamb in Indian restaurants. But Flavor's chicken list being by far the more interesting, she chose from it instead: chicken do pyaza, sautéed with fresh onions and tomatoes in a creamy curry sauce. While the boneless chicken chunks were on the dry side (like those in Jason's mixed grill) the vegetables in this dish were a delight. The translucent onion slices were cooked just this side of softness to release their sweetness, while still retaining some zing and crunch. The tomatoes, meanwhile, had a slightly acidic astringency that punctuated a sauce otherwise thick with cream and pulverized spices. All this was served over exceptionally fluffy, aromatic basmati rice.
Malai kofta -- cheese and vegetable balls -- which our knowledgeable server assured us are popular among vegetarians, consisted of meatball-sized globes of mixed vegetables, similar to samosa filling. They were coated, fried and served in a thick, caramel-colored sauce that was earthy with ground nuts and topped with slivered almonds for a change of texture.
One feature we haven't seen on many local Indian menus was a children's section. Chicken pakora, or fritters -- an Indian appetizer -- was a neat substitute for nuggets, and an enormous portion of spiced (as opposed to spicy) rice with chicken was a big hit with our toddler.
Flavor of India's kitchen showed enough skill that we will keep our eyes open for the next regional buffet night. We only wonder why the daily menu does not represent the breadth of this restaurant's ambitions to bring the many regional cuisines of India to Pittsburgh. Perhaps this could be done, and the restaurant renamed Flavors of India.