by Eric Ginsburg
The signals are impossible to miss; this is not the same Indian restaurant.
When Café Mirchi, a Pakistani and Indian restaurant, opened in the storefront that used to be India Palace on Greensboro’s collegiate Tate Street last week, the visible changes extended beyond the name change. Walls repainted a butterscotch sort of color, replaced light fixtures and a lack of art suggest an effort to brand the space as more upscale, as two-person tables replace the window-front real estate that buffet carts used to occupy.
Café Mirchi opened for dinner only a week ago, with plans to begin serving lunch this Thursday, which its website says will entail a buffet. Its predecessor was known as a cheap lunch spot though it frequently remained half empty. During its tenure India Palace provided a tempting buffet, albeit one with fewer items than its more expensive counterpart at Saffron Indian Cuisine.
There isn’t anywhere in the Triad, at least that I can find, advertising itself as a Pakistani restaurant, though no doubt some local Indian restaurants offer dishes from the neighboring nation. Mirchi’s chef, a server told a table nearby a few nights ago, hails from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city that is situated on the Arabian Sea not too far from India’s northwest border.
With several stellar existing Indian restaurants already around in town, I wanted to try a staple from the chef’s home turf. Our server pointed to the nihari, an entrée consisting of tender pieces of beef served in a mild gravy with thin pieces of gingerroot and two lemon rounds.
It’s one of six chef specials listed on the menu, and when have you ever seen beef at an Indian restaurant? Chicken, goat, lamb, maybe seafood and vegetarian meals to be sure, but not beef. That’s partly due to religious differences — India is predominantly Hindu while Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim. The nihari can come with beef or chicken, our server said, but since the menu listed beef, I opted for what I hoped would be more traditional.
Unlike the creamy, orange butter chicken, which also comes with a large bowl of rice, the flavors of the nihari’s gravy can be somewhat muted if poured fully into the rice bowl. It’s better to add spoonfuls of rice to the metal serving tray the nihari arrives in, while the rich butter chicken is only enhanced by the side item and can be poured over it liberally. Don’t treat the lemons as a garnish; squeeze both pieces over the dish for full effect.
My girlfriend and I traded the filling dishes, at first preferring each other’s before switching back. We equally endorsed the vegetable samosas sprinkled with cilantro that we ordered as appetizers, but the palak naan — just $3 and stuffed with spinach and herbs — proved even more enticing.
At first blush the menu lacked a vegetarian section, but the meatless dishes are marked by the “farm fresh” category and are also scattered throughout the list. We ran into my friend Gwen while we were there. She said she and her date enjoyed the saag paneer and vegetable biryani dishes — two of the vegetarian choices — but leaned towards the biryani with its “super fresh mint and cilantro.”
Few people have already discovered Café Mirchi, but the slow rollout of the new restaurant gives its owners a chance to be more deliberate with their intentions. In the meantime the place feels too big and too open, Gwen and I agreed. Some sort of sheer curtain, maybe something red, would benefit the front wall, my girlfriend suggested — the entire thing is a window.
If Mirchi is aiming for a more upscale, intimate and fine-dining oriented feel than India Palace, the owners need to commit to it; create at least a minimal level of privacy from the street, break up the mostly empty room with dividers or a half wall and scrap the paper protecting the nicer beige tablecloths.
It’s certainly possible to appeal to a fast-turnaround lunch buffet crowd and a more chic dinner-date audience and make both feel at home. Café Mirchi already executes Indian and Pakistani food well — a rarity in this area — and benefits from prompt service. The restaurant just needs a final push, and some outgoing eaters, to bring it home.
Visit Café Mirchi at 413 Tate Street (GSO) or at cafe-mirchi.com.