The interior itself offers some striking juxtapositions: lmagine sitting in a booth under a vibrantly colored disco ball, separated from your neighbors by beads stolen from Rhoda Morgenstern's old Minneapolis apartment while being serenaded by a mixture of Indian music and lite jazz.
The food itself is pretty decent, nothing earth-shattering, but solid, sort of Indian cuisine 101. But here's the thing: Indian food is typically known for giving you a lot of bang for your buck. Not here. Our table of four ordered 13 dishes (an appetizer platter, one soup, eight main dishes, three desserts), not counting three kinds of bread, spent $110 without tip and still didn't have any leftovers to take home. How is that possible? I'll tell you in two words -- portion control.
Case in point: sham-savera. These are spinach balls, dumplings, as it were, mildly spiced and sitting in a light fragrant sauce. Delicious. In fact, one of my tablemates said she'd never before sampled such tasty spinach. Here's the problem, though: The dish cost $7.95, and it consisted of a scant four spinach balls, the size of golf balls, nearly two bucks a pop. Most real golf balls don't cost that much apiece.
An even better example is dum aloo banarsi, new potatoes stuffed with a savory and sweet mixture of cheese, nuts and raisins and simmered in a rich, spicy sauce. Yummy? You bet. Cost? $7.95. Serving size? Two potatoes. That's right, two potatoes. Last time I checked, we weren't in the middle of a potato shortage; new potatoes weren't on the endangered species list, nor had they been listed as a controlled substance. So unless I'm very wrong, and these are actually some sort of rare Himalayan potatoes raised on a mountain and raced to market via private jets, two potatoes for $7.95 strikes me as more than a little bit absurd. (And if I were a vegetarian and had ordered this for my main dish, I can't begin to tell you what I'd be thinking.)
Not all the serving sizes, though, are throwbacks to the worst excesses, so to speak, of nouvelle cuisine. The tamater shorba ($2.50) was marvelous, a rich, creamy and spicy tomato soup. The tandoori murgh shahnaz (tandoori chicken, $7.50 half, $11.95 whole) was also terrific, which is no easy feat; finding a good tandoori chicken in this town is rare, since it's far too easy to overcook the bird in the superhot tandoor oven, leaving it dry and tasteless. This was an exception, though, beautifully spiced, blessedly moist and juicy throughout. With a squeeze of lemon and a few slices of sizzling hot onion, it was close to perfection.
The menu describes the gosht dil pasand ($10.95) as the perfect lamb curry. Quite a boast there, and it almost lives up to the hype. It's certainly a classic: chunks of lamb simmered to an exceptional tenderness with yogurt and spices, the spices an ideal balance of heat and sweet flavors (cinnamon? cardamom? coriander?). Served with light, fragrant basmati rice, the lamb is wonderful.
A couple of the other dishes are more problematic. The chicken chili ($10.50) is advertised on the menu as "not for the faint-hearted." Never one to shrink from a challenge, I dived into the chili headfirst and was stunned by its total lack of heat. Here's the reason: The chicken is stir-fried with slices of green and red chilies, but the chicken and dark sauce absorb none of the heat. So make sure you get slices of chili along with the chicken; otherwise it's mild to the point of boredom.
Boredom is definitely not the problem with the goa jhinga curry ($11.95). One bite into the shrimp dish and I was frantically looking for water, tea, yogurt, bread, anything to squelch the flames. In this case, the heat comes not from chilies but from cayenne. Unfortunately the cayenne tastes like it was added at the last minute, lending the dish a raw, harsh, uncooked taste. Definitely hot, but not particularly pleasant.
At any rate, the breads ($2.50 per order) were all terrific, worth a visit on their own, really, and the desserts, as is usual in Indian restaurants, are extremely sweet and perfect after the heat and spice of the main dishes. But my thoughts keep going back to those two sad, lonely new potatoes. Come on, guys. Even Kate Moss would have looked up from the platter with those haunted eyes of hers, imploring, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"
Shiva Indian Restaurant, 2514 Times Boulevard, (713)523-4753.