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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Passage to India
Lawrence Shopping Center
2495 Route 1 & Texas Avenue
Lawrenceville, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 637-0800

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
June 12, 2000

Note: January 2008--Passage to India is now under new ownership and no long has a liquor license. The Artful Diner will return for an update in the very near future. Please return soon for the updated review.

You need not be a culinary Sherlock Holmes to deduce the nature of Passage to India's previous incarnation: a diner -- and not a particularly attractive one at that. But while the exterior isn't terribly prepossessing, there are surprises aplenty on the inside. The dining room is simple yet stylish, the service is snappy and attentive (almost too attentive at times), and the food... Ah, yes, the food. It is, bar none, the best Indian cuisine that I have sampled in the Garden State.

There is a small bar here, to the left as you enter, where one may pause for a brief restorative before dinner. There is also a compact wine list... rather utilitarian, but it still fills the bill quite nicely. When it comes to Indian food, red wines are a definite no-no, as are a host of exotic, colorful cocktails. The most auspicious match is a simple, slightly acidic white that will both refresh the palate and -- if needs be -- put out the fire. There are several from which to choose, but the 1998 Montevina Fume Blanc ($17.95) is a commendable and reasonably priced choice.

Most Indian restaurants in the U.S. major in dishes from north India -- elaborate meat preparations and velvety sauces -- with just a smattering of (sometimes fiery) vegetarian offerings from the south. Passage to India, however, allows the diner to select a variety of interesting options from among the country's many regions. For the most part, you will find that this eatery's artful blending of aromatics (herbs, spices and seasonings) will tantalize rather than incinerate the taste buds. But beware. The notable exceptions are the positively incendiary vindaloos, which originated in the state of Goa on the southwestern coast of India, and are almost always made with red chilies. Enough to make a grown man cry.

Among the appetizers, I would heartily recommend the absolutely scrumptious Dosai Duet ($6.95) from south India. Rice and lentil batter crepes are filled with spiced potatoes, onions and panir (similar to cottage cheese). The vegetable pakoras ($3.50), assorted deep-fried veggies coated with a crunchy chickpea flour batter, are a flavorful delight... as are the samosas ($3.50), crispy fried turnovers filled with a pleasantly spicy mixture of potatoes and green peas. If you have an aversion to fried foods, however, you may wish to try the Khaman Dhokla ($3.95), steamed lentil cakes sprinkled with fresh coconut and mustard seeds, or the Khandvi ($3.95), steamed chickpea rolls tempered with mustard seeds.

But for those who wish to sample a variety of goodies -- and who also enjoy sharing the wealth -- the "Assorted Platter" is just the thing. Here you find the aforementioned vegetable samosas and pankoras, as well as some delectable added attractions: Seekh Kabab (minced lamb morsels combined with onions, herbs, and mild spices, and cooked on a skewer in the tandoor oven; and fish and chicken Tikka (tasty chunks marinated in a blend of aromatic spices and fired to perfection). Restaurants of this particular ethnic backbround are not known for their culinary dexterity in matters piscatorial... but when it comes to finny creatures, this chef clearly knows what he is about. And that goes double for the chicken, which is perfectly tender.

Moving on to entrees, I freely confess to having a great fondness for lamb. In many Indian establishments, however, this is strictly a "hit or miss" proposition. The meat can be wonderfully moist and succulent... or as tough as Clint Eastwood's Rawhide saddle. At Passage to India, the lamb literally melts in your mouth. Highly recommended is the Gosht Dum Pasanda ($13.95), scallops of lamb marinated in yogurt and spices and then vacuum simmered for hours to produce a uniquely rich and delicate flavor. Another possibility is Gosht Roganjoshi ($13.95), a favorite of the Kasmir region to the north. The lamb is cooked in a mixture of onions and tomatoes that have been enhanced with freshly ground spices. For those less adventurous of palate, there is always the traditional Saag Gosht ($13.95), lamb cubes cooked with seasoned spinach.

Vegetarian dishes, the pride of southern India, are both vast and diverse, and here they are given their proper due. The veggies are cooked through, but are neither mushy nor watery and, even when commingled with a host of aromatics, manage to maintain their own unique flavors. Typically appealing is the vegetable Jalfreizi ($9.95); exquisitely fresh onions, peas, broccoli, peppers, etc., are pan roasted and then kissed ever so gently with spices... just enough to thoroughly invigorate the palate. Another favorite is the Baingan Bhartha ($9.95), a concasse of charbroiled eggplant that is gently simmered with tomatoes & onions and jazzed up with a mellow garlic accent. But the most popular offering is undoubtedly the Malai Kofta ($9.95). Potato and vegetable croquettes are augmented with homemade cottage cheese and then simmered in a midly spicy cream sauced flavored with cardamom. Both rich and savory, this one is not to be missed!

If you really want to experience the very best that Passage to India has to offer, however, be sure to check out the Chaat, all vegetarian, all appetizer buffet on Wednesday evenings. The cost is a paltry $11.95 plus tax and, trust me, I would consider it a bargain at twice the price. Here you may sample the luscious likes of Pani Puri (mini fried bread rounds that may be filled with a seasoned stuffing of potatoes, lentils, black chickpeas, and topped with tamarind and spicy cilantro/mint chutneys), Dahi Vada (lentil dumplings in creamy yogurt), Tikki Chole (mildly curried chickpeas served with dense and delectable seasoned potato pancakes), Pau Bhaji (a fabulous vegetarian chili pot), Sambar (a tantalizing south Indian lentil curry), Malai Kulfi (homemade Indian ice cream flavored with rose water, saffron and pistachio nuts), and a host of other enticing possibilities. This magnificent buffet is also accompanied by an assortment of garnishes and a variety of impossible-to-resist freshly baked breads.

This fine establishment also offers an "Executive Lunch Buffet" Tuesday - Friday at $8.95 per person and a "Weekend Lunch Buffet" at $10.95. And should you find yourself short of time, you might also consider their lunches to go, priced at $5.95 and $6.95, respectively.

Whether you are a long-time devotee or are contemplating your initial foray into the wonderful and exotic world of Indian cuisine, Passage to India will surely win your heart.

Cuisine: Indian
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Sat & Sun, 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs & Sun, 5:15 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat & Sun, 5:15 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking permitted at the bar only.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYO
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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