NO CLICHÉ: Grain and Salt skips the stereotypes and delivers lively, authentic Indian Cuisine.
There are three holy grails we seek on the restaurant-review beat. One is the “quiet, romantic place that isn’t expensive.” Everyone requests this, but it seems no one actually patronizes such places, because the market fails to produce them. (Year after year, the restaurants get louder, less romantic, if more dramatic, and more expensive — apparently there just aren’t any more third dates.) Then there is the “baseball-scout special,” where one can catch a potential superstar chef creatively breaking out in his or her first little bistro. This happens, sometimes even a few times a year. Lastly, we have my personal favorite: the “immigrant-patronized ethnic restaurant patronized that’s still upscale” — at least upscale enough, that is, to work for outsiders. It’s a delicate balance, but Grain and Salt walks the line, and does so in defiance of stereotypical Indian restaurants.
Hidden in this modest Allston storefront is a linen-tablecloth Indo-Pakistani restaurant. A big draw at Grain and Salt turns out to be meat that’s certified halal, the Muslim equivalent of kosher, so — at last! — observant Muslims can eat out without having to pick through the menu. This naturally tilts the kitchen toward meat dishes, but it also locks in a base of customers native to the cuisine, which makes ethnic restaurants strive to be that much better. Grain and Salt has lively food of all kinds, except for pork and alcohol. So India’s only important pork dish, the vindaloo of Goa, is prepared with shrimp. The vegetarian in our party ended up happy as a cabbage.
Don’t miss the vegetable pakoras ($3.50), six fried fritters full of crisp vegetables, held together with chickpea flour. With it came outstanding mint and spicy tamarind chutneys that were clearly house-made and fresh. Also on the vegan A-list would be haria kebab ($8), actually three patties — no skewer in sight — of softer, better-cooked cauliflower, chickpeas, and spinach. It was about as crumbly as a good crab cake, and was very tasty alone or with the two chutneys. Only after ordering did I notice a platter of homemade samosas ($4) — pyramidal pasties — go by. Next time, we’ll start with those.
On a cool night, a vegetable soup ($3.50) was outstanding. The broth was a simple stock of celery and onion, a little sneaky hot pepper, and a little starch; the vegetables included slices of water chestnut. This is a result of a decades-old South Asian fascination with Chinese food. Grain and Salt has a whole Chinese sub-menu, no doubt a boon to Muslims who fear the use of pork in all but vegan Chinese restaurants.
Murgh tikka chaat ($6), an appetizer that one usually sees in a yogurt sauce, is here a bowl of sliced tandoori chicken stir-fried with onions and peppers, with a green-herbal flavor.
As for the entrées, palak paneer ($10.50) was a gingery version of the spinach purée with cubes of homemade and somewhat rubbery cheese, plus a few shreds of ginger on top. The key to this dish is a rich but subtle spice blend, and the chef here offers one of the best in Boston.
Madras fish ($12.50) is a superb dish in a red coconut-milk sauce. It’s not overly rich, but wraps the chunks of white fish in a shifting series of spicy flavors. We ordered all our food “medium,” but when it arrived, it was actually more hot than medium — and that was provided we steered clear of the dried chilies in some dishes.
Another entrée, lamb bhuna ($12), was similar to a stir-fry and full of lamb flavor, with cumin, peppers, and onions. The menu says it was “grilled with Himalayan herbs,” and it resembled some dishes that I’ve had in Nepali restaurants, where the food is often more rustic and less sauce-based than most Indian-restaurant food. Perhaps a versatile Nepali chef has taken a hand here.
All of the entrées are served with an ultra-long-grain, aromatic basmati rice that resembles that of Persia. It’s cooked with a few whole cloves, an occasional cumin seed, and a dribble of saffron butter on top. And don’t miss the tandoori-oven breads. Our keema naan ($3.50) with brilliant ground-lamb stuffing made one of the most delicious mouthfuls imaginable. Lamejun lovers, look East!
Since there are no alcoholic beverages, you should take advantage of some delicious South Asian alternatives. Lassi ($3.25) — thinned yogurt — is available in sweet, salty, and mango varieties. The mango is well flavored, but not too sweet to drink with entrées; the yogurt cuts some of the spices. Lemonade ($2) was not so impressive; I had hoped for something more like the Southeast Asian salty lemonade. Masala tea ($2), now called “chai” in America, was simply black tea with a spice mixture and hot milk, more refreshing and spicy than the creamy-sweet Americanized versions.