Vindalho joins SubRosa up the street as a safe, non-ageist place to hang out in the SE Clinton Street hub that isn't Dot's or the Clinton Street Pub. Open only 5 to 10 pm and closed both Sundays and Mondays, it has firmly established itself as a nice restaurant where you can take your parents or a date and not find any rabble.
This mentality extends to the food, which is described by Vindalho's subtitle as "Spice Route Cuisine," a notion that could mean anything, as long as it can be found along the routes traveled by ships involved in the historically rich spice trade. Such routes have included destinations in Africa, China, and Arabia, but Vindalho, being mostly Indian themed (in food, though not at all in décor), seems focused on the routes formed by the British Empire. This opens it up to dishes like the mulligatawny soup, a very British lentil/winter squash medley jazzed up with cumin, coriander, and other classically Indian flavorings. In short, Vindalho offers SE Portland-friendly food and ambience with enough SE Asian flourishes to seem exotic, but not so much that you'll feel dragged into the scary world of the Truly Authentic.
"Indian fusion" might be a better way to describe the food at Vindalho (its website, www.vindalho.com calls it, "A culinary journey to India and beyond", but that doesn't mean it's not worth eating. The lamb kofta that kicked our meal off was quite tasty: tender, rolled balls of meat dunked in a pleasantly salty Rogan Josh sauce. The lamb globules were just pink enough on the inside, with hints of coriander bursting through the musky hue of the meat.
Following this artful, if heavy appetizer came two fairly decent entrees: the monkfish tikka, and, on special, the tandoori game hen with chana dahl and mustard seed slaw. The flesh in both dishes—piping hot from Vindalho's shiny new tandoor oven—was delicious. The game hen was both crispy and juicy, while the creamy monkfish had the consistency of thick, fluffy bread, accentuated beautifully with a tamarind and fennel seed marinade. Unfortunately, the accompanying mound of basmati rice was also doused in fennel, a seasoning that poorly matched the accompanying cloyingly sweet plum sauce. Across the table, my date's dahl was undercooked, though her cabbage and mustard seed slaw was crisp, crunchy, and divine.
Founded on a geographically meandering culinary premise, Vindalho is a bit of a hodgepodge in both flavor and preparation. In a strange twist, it offers tiny receptacles of condiments like pumpkin raita and pear ginger chutney for $2 extra, a price hike that seemed unreasonable even before we discovered that our mango pickle sauce was bland and again, too sweet. Also disappointing was the nan, a crucial element of any restaurant that's going to step up to the Indian plate. Vindalho's nan, huge and flat and covered with toasted fennel seeds, looked incredible, but was nearly black on the bottom and crunched in our teeth like old toaster remnants.
With $13-17 entrees, Vindalho occupies an income bracket above and beyond what I expect to spend when I'm kickin' it in the Clinton area. At the same time, its food is too hit and miss to qualify as a reliable "special night out" destination, especially when the equally pricy, but uncompromisingly succulent Bombay Cricket Club lurks on nearby Hawthorne. Like spice routes throughout time, Vindalho is all over the map.