My dinner companion is chewing deliberately, the corners of her mouth turning upward in a slight smile. The skin around her eyes and the tops of her cheeks begins to glow, like she's been lit from inside. She inhales sharply, waving a hand in front of her face. It's a proven fact: Curry makes you more attractive. By extension, the gosht vindaloo at East India Co. will likely make you the prettiest person in the room.
Located downtown, behind the Central Library, East India Co. is Portland's latest high-end Indian food emporium (see also Bombay Cricket Club and Vindalho). The interior proclaims its Brahman-esque status with plenty of sparkle. Two large chandeliers dominate the foyer and a sleek black bar leads to a spacious dining room with an impressive, domed, red glass ceiling.
There's plenty to take in as you figure out how the hell to get a table. Both nights I ate at East India Co. there was no one to seat my party and no host podium. Not that a host would have come anyway. But after managing to get seated, my table was a comfortable place to peruse East India Co.'s exorbitantly priced menu. This is likely the most expensive sub-continental fare in Portland, with entrée prices ranging from $12 to 21 (without naan).
Overpriced? Yes, but aside from a regrettable, fish-stick-tinged crab cake, every dish I ate at East India Co. was a study in heat and dynamic flavor, like the glow-inducing gosht vindaloo. In this dish, small bites of lamb are set off by notes of cinnamon and imbued with perfect pot roast flavor, melting against the tongue. Heat comes slowly from the back of the palate and fills the mouth with bright fire. Tied up with delicate sweetness, and tempered with pulao rice (thankfully complimentary), it is delicious.
On the vegetarian side, the saag paneer, roasted paneer cheese in mild spinach sauce, is quite good. The small cubes of homemade cheese have the consistency of a soft mozzarella and a bit of smoke. Swimming in cardamom-enhanced spinach sauce, the roundness of the dish is spiked with bits of spicy ginger.
The creamy navratan korma, also vegetarian, has lovely sweetness and heat. The subtle sugar of raisins works incredibly against savory cashew sauce. Add seasonal vegetables for substantial texture and everything is harmonious.
However, the best dish on the menu is the murg makhani, or "butter chicken," a staple in southeast Indian restaurants. The chicken is perfectly tender with an amazing smoky grill flavor. Again, there is a bit of sweetness, but it's combined with notes of citrus and heat from a creamy tomato curry. Add a "hard" mango lassi into the mix and splurge for a basket of garlic naan, and your happiness and a lighter wallet is assured.
East India Co. should definitely work on their front-of-house staff, who seem a bit hurried and overworked, even in a barely populated dining room. Skip it and sit at the bar for happy hour, where tandoori-style chicken wings are a delectable steal at $3 a plate.
I'm still not sure if East India Co.'s offerings are worth their cost. But for me, beauty through curry is priceless. You could do worse than this tandoori Taj Mahal.