The following column is written by the third
of five finalists in the contest to find the next Weekly Planet Food Editor.
Until recently, downtown Tampa had all the culinary excitement of casino night in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.
The odds of finding some new, extraordinary dining spot, or simply enjoying a memorable meal, were pretty slim. Pizza and sandwich joints, and an ancient burger shop, did not bode well for a city hoping to be world class.
After dark, it just got worse.
That's why it's so much fun to witness, over the last couple of years, the unmistakable signs that downtown is on a roll: The shriek of raucous Ice Palace fans mobbing the sidewalks; couples rushing to catch a movie at Channelside, and young techies slurping cocktails and trolling for action at the bars.
This new urban vitality is generating a host of new venues — stores, bars and restaurants — among them a new place called Shalimar Indian Cuisine. Encouraged by downtown's new denizens, it opened three months ago, featuring a dramatically different cuisine, a bang-up lunch buffet and nightly sit-down dining.
Located just a few steps from the County Center downtown, Shalimar's tidy dining room, redolent with the scent of exotic spices, produces a hearty ethnic cuisine that is certainly a welcome antidote to the curse of casual sandwiches and snacks. Situated in a modest storefront-style building, the tiled foyer is bright with filigreed brass decorations.
A spacious bar attractively drapes one side of the room. The remainder is set with cane chairs and simple tables, crisp with real linen in burgundy and white, white china and glistening wine and water goblets.
At one end of the room is serving equipment for the popular lunch buffet ($6.95) which I sampled on my second visit to the restaurant. It was really quite wonderful. During my first visit for dinner, the menu, setting and service were fine, but the appetizers needed some tweaking.
The buffet was quite a spread, with a couple of dozen dishes. A large, appreciative crowd of noontime diners occupied the place and spillover singles ate contentedly at the bar. It was a typical downtown business crowd — suited men and women in dresses.
Start with Indian-style tea ($1.50): It's similar in texture to Cuban coffee, but bears the flavor of cardamom, and that's what your nose appreciates when you take a sip. Even with the harsh summer sun plying waves of heat from the pavement, the tea tasted lovely.
Among the buffet offerings were lentil soup ($2.50) tiny fronds of parsley waving through an understated broth, with crunchy cabbage salad and three varieties of chutney-mint, onion and mango. The best vegetable dish was a medley of cauliflower, green beans, potatoes and carrots, lightly spiced. It was delicious with naan, the smoky Indian flat bread baked by slapping the dough directly onto the sizzling wall of a 500-degree Tandoor oven, India's traditional cooking method.
The best meat dish was chicken "butter curry," chunks of poultry simmered in cream and tomato sauce so long that the meat collapsed subtly in my mouth. The idea is to plop the gooey meat atop white rice, which at Shalimar means an enormous, fragrant platter of Basmati, scented with jasmine. The combination of starchy rice and silken sauce, and the tender surrender of meat to marinades and heat, is what makes Indian food so unique.
Dinner at Shalimar proved less successful than lunch, but it was still pretty special. We arrived on a Tuesday night, when there was no hockey game or concert downtown, and the streets were deserted.
When my companions arrived, we faced a roomful of empty tables, a situation that might discourage less intrepid diners. Our foursome made the best of a teensy wine list, ordering a bottle of Fetzer Riesling ($12.95) for the ladies and Indian Kingfischer beer ($3.50) for the gent. Appetizers cost in the $3 range, entrees are $7.95-14.95, and desserts are about $3 each. The first course was disappointing for various reasons: An appetizer called pakoras ($3.50) — vegetable fritters made with chickpea flour — harbored an unappetizing grit; chicken pakoras ($3.50) — boneless chicken battered and fried, was pretty dry. But remaining courses certainly made up for it. For a while, we settled into an absorbed silence as each new platter arrived on the table: steaming soup, a simple dressed salad ($2.25) followed by a bevy of colorful meat dishes.
My favorite was chicken vindaloo ($12.50) typically among the hottest of the curry dishes: Tender cubes of poultry marinated luxuriously in a spicy sauce. It was fabulous. Still, the lamb curry ($12.95) was the house's signature dish, both at lunch and at dinner. (You will notice there is no beef or pork on the menu, in deference to the religious preferences of the restaurant's Hindu and Muslim customers.)
Those who prefer milder food can ask for "medium" or "mild" curry or spice, and the cook will comply. We ordered all our dishes with moderate spice, and they still carried plenty of heat. "Heavy" spice would ignite a fiery bolt on your tongue.
We finished with a soupy version of rice pudding ($3.50) and a glass of mango lassi ($3.50) a milkshake-like drink thick with mango, blended with crushed ice, smooth as a yellow satin ribbon.
You're not going to find, as you might at a less-authentic ethnic restaurant, a New York-style cheesecake or a rendition of Plant City strawberry pie. Such desserts are simply foreign to the thousands of years of tradition behind Shalimar's cuisine, and I was relieved that the owners didn't find it necessary to contort their menu to accomplish a Western-style finish.
It is the restaurant's unwavering commitment to the long heritage from which it draws, and its obvious dedication to traditional preparation methods — even though modern gadgets are quite available to the chef — that made our meal memorable. We are lucky to have Shalimar, and its debut signals something positive in the cards for Tampa.