Few things are more satisfying than going out to eat and loving every single dish. (Well, duh.) Unfortunately, delivering a meal that’s impeccable from start to finish is a rarity, and about as easy as performing Beethoven’s Ninth.
Pinch of Spice — an Indian restaurant in Kennesaw owned by Vikram Balasubramani and his wife, Archana Vikram, both from southern India — is not the New York Philharmonic of restaurants. It’s not even the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra of restaurants.
Taking a meal in this terracotta-and-cream-colored room, which looks like a ’70s holdover, even though it’s just shy of 2 1/2 years old, is a bit of a mezzanine-level experience. The menu reads like the greatest hits of India. Everything is good and filling but hardly extraordinary.
Then lo and behold, you’ll get a taste of something that’s like Jessye Norman hitting a high note.
Maybe it’s the bhel puri mix (puffed rice), a wonderfully beer-friendly snack. Or the “bamboo fish,” tender, lightly battered-fried swai, spiked with jalapeños and sweet onion — a bit like a Chinese “salt and pepper” treatment. Or rose milk, served in a tall soda-fountain glass and swirled with hot-pink floral syrup, just the thing to soothe a tongue torched by chiles.
A Pinch of Spice meal begins like this: A server drops off a basket of crispy papadum and a trio of chutneys: mint, tamarind and sweet onion. You dabble the fresh clean flavors on the crackly, ultra-thin flatbread. (Think of the experience as a tuning session for the symphony that follows.) Taking a look at the program, you see the curries, tandooris, biryanis and naans typical of mainstream Indian dining in America, with a few surprises.
As you order, the server will ask how hot you want the food. It’s like saying, “Do you prefer the background music soft, loud or blaring?” On my first foray, my date was more of a retiring mouse than a spice girl, so we requested our chicken 65, lasooni dhania gobi (battered and deep-fried cauliflower), saag paneer and Chettinad chicken just a hair above mild. By my third visit, I felt like living dangerously, so I told the waiter to turn up the burn, to splendid effect.
Let’s rewind a sec to run through the appetizers. Chicken 65 was wholly unremarkable, not even a curry or cilantro leaf for garnish. A dunk in the tamarind sauce gave it a lift. Samosa chaat, in which the classic fried, spicy-potato-filled pastries are smashed and topped with yogurt and chutneys, was a little on the wet side for me. I like a few crispy bits for texture.
The cauliflower was bathed in generic sweet-tangy syrup — not all that exciting. A similar vegetarian starter, which I discovered on the Sunday buffet, was heavily disguised in batter and coated in a sweet-tangy sauce reminiscent of though not as cloying as Chinese sweet and sour. “Not bad,” I thought to myself. “But what exactly is this?” Turned out to be “Manchurian baby corn,” quite a surprise, since I don’t generally care for the Lilliputian cobs.
The kitchen plays it safe with the saag paneer (cubes of soft white cheese in pureed spinach). And while I was hoping the Chettinad chicken would bring a little south Indian zing to the table, the turmeric-colored sauce was more homey and comforting than exotic, as were most of the items (chicken tikka, chicken biryani, curry fish) on the Sunday buffet. That said, Pinch of Spice does a good job with its nicely charred and smoke-infused tandoori chicken, and all of the sauce-laden dishes are perfect for scooping up with warm naan. We liked the bread so much we asked for more, and loved the version stuffed with a thin layer of cheese.
As I mentioned, it wasn’t until my final stop that I realized it sometimes takes more than a pinch of spice for the flavors to pop. Ordered thusly, that crispy “bamboo fish” was delicious and sinus-clearing. Goat biryani was good, too, especially with a squirt of lemon. Do take care, though, as you work your way through the mound of fluffy basmati: I found a couple of tamarind pits lurking in the rice. Bhindi masala (okra and tomatoes) was a bit disappointing, mainly because the pods are so finely chopped they get lost in the stew.
In a phone interview, Balasubramani told me his wife developed the recipes and supervises the kitchen. Newcomers to the food industry, he said their goal is to be a family-friendly mom-and-pop where the food, service and commitment to cleanliness all get equal due.
Indeed, this place is kiddie-friendly to a fault. Toward the end of a busy Sunday lunch, I saw a toddler grab a stack of plastic bowls from the buffet line and proceed to drop them them loudly at her family’s booth. No one cared. Her father just smiled and carried on.
Pinch of Spice is like that: a happy melody occasionally interrupted by a cymbal crash of flavor. Those are the moments you’ll want to savor.