Going into IndLine, my first emotion was a tremble of apprehension that was not about the place itself – or at least not directly. Rather, the way the place looks is so similar to another place down Keong Saik Road, which I like, that for a moment I thought the other place was no more. From the placement of the counter, to the decor with flashes of colour on bare concrete, to the raised rear portion. It could be a quirk of the whole stretch – or it could be I am standing where Muchachos once was.
It turns out it’s probably the quirk thing. But it still says something about how Keong Saik is falling into hipsterish homogeneity even as it becomes a food strip to be reckoned with. Indline’s looks definitely stand out among Indian restaurants – neither utilitarian and ascetic, nor arrayed with upholstery and thick-padded banquettes throughout. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either.) It is as modern as its setting demands. But is it Indian?
Yes, emphatically yes. That the chef, Ajim Khan, is a Kolkata native makes it ‘Indian’ in the abstract. But concretely, there’s the aroma of a whole gamut of mixed spices in the brightly-lit space, and there’s no mistaking that for any other sort of restaurant. And while the counter looks more like a salad bar or deli, a window opens into the kitchen behind where skewers of chicken tikka – both orange and green – are hanging, with the occasional flash of wok-fire.
The companion has gone vegetarian (which is why we were here in the first place), and he is taken by the sight of the tikka. So paneer tikka it is – slabs of the tofu-like cheese, dyed saffron by marinade. Despite the colour, the marinade is restrained, keeping from overwhelming the mild, fresh paneer’s flavour. But the tandoor’s heat is clearly less restrained; the cheese slices have been charred round the edges to perfection, and then a bit more.
The kadhai subji, on the other hand, is all about the sauce, a thick, green-brown gravy holding a mix of everything, from little cauliflower florets that still krok, to tender bits of long bean and more of that soft paneer. I would tell you what spices dominate the sauce, but I’m honestly not that sharp-nosed – I know there’s cardamom in there, but just because I bit into one. Sorry.
A lot simpler is the butter chicken, though I don’t know if it’s the better for it; there is a little bit of salt, but it is completely dominated by mildly sweet, rich and creamy butter. That’s all very good for the first three or four mouthfuls, but the generosity at Indline actually works against the dish – after a while I am hoping, barbaric as it sounds, for a packet of soy sauce to dump in there and deepen the flavour somewhat. The chicken comes in numerous small chunks and is nicely cooked, though it hardly makes a dent in the pleasant – and eventually cloying – sauce.
The sauce makes me grateful for the garlic naan though. I’ve had my share of store-bought naans that have neither joy nor a particular will to live, and these are not like that – rather they are light, flaky, with a good bit of stretch and glistening with ghee. You can dip it in anything and it will accept that with equanimity. It’s an amicable, friendly sort of bread.
I don’t manage to finish the butter chicken, actually; I’m about to surrender. But the pal urges me on to dessert, and then comes ras malai, a simple dish of soft cheese cooked in syrup that’s purportedly also native to Kolkata. Instead of being stuffed, the pieces of chhana here are simply served in a puddle of pistachio-studded milk. It’s syrup-sweet, and oozes out the cheese, but a clearer note of cardamom moderates it.
So what starts well also ends quite well, thankfully. But I wonder what exactly is the mission of IndLine, what it’s trying to accomplish by setting up here in Keong Saik. Perhaps – as displayed by its website design, which is undeniably good – it is trying to make Indian cuisine, or at least that of the north, a bit more hip and trendy. But then it arguably was never not hip and trendy, as stalwarts like Muthu’s demonstrate.
Still, IndLine has its own virtues independent of any mission statement – its portions are generous, and it is a pretty place. I’m not sure that’s enough to induce me to keep going there for my fix of the subcontinent, but it’s definitely an option.
28 Keong Saik Road (map)
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 10.30pm