Cheap eats

A healthy dose of Indian

(Wendy maeda/globe staff)
By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2009

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A funny thing happened on our way back from Ghazal Fine Indian Cuisine's 15-foot-long buffet. No one groaned about eating too much. No one felt as heavy as lard. Not even the dieter among us felt a tinge of regret. But self-control hadn't spared us. It was the health-minded cook.

Whether a curry, a korma, or a vindaloo, dishes at this month-old Jamaica Plain eatery seem lighter than the usual Indian fare. So while the mainly North Indian menu may be typical, the cook's light-handed use of cream, oil, and ghee, a kind of clarified butter, is not.

Saag paneer ($11.95), typically a fat-heavy spinach curry, dares to favor spinach over cream. Goat and lamb curries ($17.50 or $12.50) arrive in subtly spicy gravies thick with tomato and tender chunks of meat. Our chicken tikka masala's ($12.95) tomato cream sauce is rich, as it should be, but modestly so. Shahi bhindi ($11.50) arrives with gently spiced al dente okra shimmering with (rather than sopping with) ghee.

Forkful for forkful, our dishes are as graceful and light as the elegant cafe décor. Dark paneled wainscoting gives way to caramel walls warmed by a funky mix of chandeliers and lamps. The trifecta of good food, a soothing space, and deft service leaves us simply feeling good. Of course the full bar, Indian beers, and extensive wine list carried over from the previous occupant, Café D, helps as well.

Ghazal also earns good marks for unusually tender and moist tandoor meats ($11.95-$18.95) and crisp, savory South Indian stuffed dosa pancakes ($7.25-8.95). Proper frying makes for tasty, greaseless appetizers, such as pakora, which are chickpea fritters ($3.50) and stuffed samosa turnovers ($2.95). In most dishes, spices are somewhat subdued, leaving us occasionally missing the kick of bold flavors.

Cheese pakoras ($4.95) are the standout starter. These quivering, light, fried rectangles of freshly made paneer (a farmer's cheese) stuffed with a mash of garlic, ginger, and potato dissolve on the tongue like edible clouds. But dahi bhalla ($3.95), lentil flour dumplings, are too dry.

The well-stocked buffet ($7.95 weekdays, $9.95 weekends) will likely attract most lunchtime diners, but Ghazal also offers a host of well-made soups ($3-$4) such as the house chicken soup, which plunks pink cubes of tandoor chicken into a reviving broth afloat with green onion and cilantro. A bowl makes a square meal when paired with samosas or a Punjabi-style sandwich of eggs or meat tucked into freshly baked naan ($5-8).

Desserts, for now, are the weakest link. But then again, not craving a sweet finale is just one more way to keep it light.