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Mina, Mina, oh sweet Mina

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Mina, Mina, oh sweet Mina

MAH | May 1, 2004 05:15 PM

Snot-rock and I made our first pilgrimage to Mina on Friday night. We arrived around 7:30 or so and the restaurant was about half full. At times during the nearly three hours we were there, all of tables were full. We also noticed a few people stopping in to pick up takeout orders and some orders going out for delivery.

We settled in to study the menu and plan our evening of gustatory delight. Having heard about the very long delays experienced by some, we resigned ourselves to being very patient and just appreciating the made to order food. Simply, if you’re in a rush, don’t go. Mina’s is really like dining at a family friend’s home. You can’t rush the kitchen. Things will arrive when they arrive. Sit back, enjoy some drinks and good company and you will be much happier.

Our waiter was helpful and made some suggestions, though we arrived with a pretty good sense of several dishes we wanted to order, based on previous posters’ raves. We ordered the samosa chat to start, the fish fry, baigan achar, goat biryani, achar ghost and palak paneer. Here are my thoughts.

The samosa chat was yummy, but didn’t knock my socks off. We ordered this because everyone seems to think it is a standout here. The waiter recommended it as well as the pani puri. The samosa was definitely homemade, cut into chunks and topped with homemade yogurt and usual components…all good components. The spice level could have been increased, and I would have preferred more coriander chutney to kick it up a notch. That being said, I thought it was quite good. Not sure I would order it again, as I want to sample as much of Mina’s menu as possible.

After a reasonable wait, the fish arrived (a whole tilapia with head and tail intact) sizzling on a small platter. The fish is coated in a spice mixture and what seems like pickled onions and garlic and also served with sizzling onions, green peppers and green chilis which are added to the process later and retain their crispness. This dish is addictively good. The flavor base is complex and the fish is exceptionally tender and light.

The rest of our dishes arrived all together after a considerable wait. We didn’t mind one bit. During our wait, we peeked at dishes ordered by others, chatted with folks at neighboring tables and slyly peeked in the kitchen to get a glimpse of the wizards working their magic.

The goat biryani was good, but didn’t quite measure up to some of the other dishes. The goat could have been more meltingly tender. It could have used a bit more braising before being folded into the rice and baked, assuming Mina’s follows the standard method of preparing birayni. I suspect that in the made to order model, it is tempting to rush that initial step. Next time I’ll try a biryani that needs less of that tenderizing time before baking….the chicken or shrimp, perhaps. That said, it was pretty good. Maybe it was just an off night for this dish.

The baigan achar was terrific, and I’m not even a huge fan of eggplant. Tiny little eggplants split in half, had the lovely sweet, sour, hot combination that all good Indian pickles do. It was a terrific accompaniment to some of the other dishes. We regretted that the fish didn’t last long enough in front of us to be sampled with the baigan. I think it would have been a good pairing.

The last two dishes, the achar gosht and the palak paneer were astonishingly good. The achar gosht arrived prepared inexplicably with chicken, rather than goat, as described on the menu and as the name would suggest. I didn’t care. The chicken was bathed in what tasted like lime pickle…..intensely sour, hot and garlicky. It was an incredible flavor, punctuated by the slightly firm bite of green peppers and absorbed beautifully by the chicken.

Finally, the palak paneer…..many others have attested to its greatness. Let me chime in and say this was the best rendition of this dish I’ve ever had. The paneer was clearly homemade and delicately fried. It had a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. The palak was very fresh, vibrant green and flavored well with garlic, ginger, turmeric and a bit of yogurt or cream to add a wonderful velvety texture. There was even a faint hint of cinnamon. Holy smokes this was good stuff!! We couldn’t stop eating it. Whatever else you order at Mina’s, this dish should absolutely not be missed. It is the perfect illustration of why Mina’s is head and shoulders above so many other Indian restaurants.

We paired our selections with a fruity and crisp Australian sauvignon blanc, which went nicely and let the bold flavors shine. I’m not generally a fan of Gewurztraminer or Riesling.

The achar gosht (made with chicken) and the palak paneer were was as good as anything I’ve had in my mom’s kitchen…..or any Indian household…..ever. That’s the relevant comparison to me…not to food at Indian restaurants. I tried to explain to snot-rock the difference between Indian restaurant food and Indian home cooking, which I much prefer. Indian restaurant food tends to be prepared in large quantities where the subtlety and complexity get lost. Great Indian food prepared at home by a loving cook is sharper, more focused and asymmetrical….there will be whole spices that get in the way, some bites will be hotter than others, and dishes never all blend together. Mina’s gets it right. I really felt like we were eating in someone’s home, not a restaurant. While I don’t quite understand how the made-to-order business model works in an Indian restaurant, I can’t argue with the taste results one bit.

We also ordered a couple of dishes to take out…more palak paneer and the shrimp dopiaza, which I didn’t sample. With the take-out order, our Entire check was a ridiculously low $55, before tip. We left a very generous tip and praised the waiter (who told us he is also an owner) on their delicious food. Vowing to go back frequently in order to make sure Mina’s survives, we left very full and happy.

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