Some culinary scents are unmistakable. Blindfolded, you’d know if you were led to a barbecue restaurant. Same for burgers on the grill, onions in a skillet, and just as certainly for Indian food.
Bharat International Market & Restaurant is no exception. Whether you enter through the market door or directly in the no-frills dining room, you’ll be hit with the heady mix of warm and fragrant spice such as cumin, cinnamon, and fenugreek simmering with aromatics such as onion and garlic.
Here there be peppers.
Spicy food is not always hot — the two terms are, incorrectly, often used interchangeably. A carrot cake is spicy, as is a ginger snap. Neither will set your tongue aflame.
Years ago a waiter in an Indian restaurant told me that when I asked for hot, I had to tell him if I wanted my food sniffling hot or sweating hot.
We were mostly in the sweating hot camp until one night we changed our ways. At another Indian restaurant, we explained how we wanted our food and the wife of the chef kindly persuaded us to tone it down a little. We’d like it better, she said, and she was right. The food had so much nuance, so many layers of flavor that we’d missed while we sniffled and sweated. Converts to this more spice-forward preparation, we became aficionados, seeking Indian food in town, when we traveled, and at home.
In short, we are not novices. When asked about the heat level of our food at Bharat, the server used the word “normal,” as in: Do you want it normal or below or above normal? We ordered it just a little “above normal,” and generally, that was right. But “generally” does not include the shrimp vindaloo.
First of all, vindaloo is typically a hot curry — not in phall territory, a curry so hot it can make you hallucinate — but fiery enough for most of us. (By the way, I use the word “curry” here in the context of the stewlike dish, not a spice.) “For a true adventure,” it says on the menu. The thick red sauce coated good-size shrimp and chunks of potatoes, and while the first bite or two sparked a slight tingle, it was a bare sliver of a hidden pepper that hit a dining companion and me at about the same moment. I watched his face turn red as I hurriedly loaded up small pieces of pappadam with raita, a cooling yogurt sauce, and held them in my mouth. I don’t know what kind of pepper it was — chilie was the simple answer I was given — but if it’s heat you crave, go order this and ask for it hot.
At lunch, there’s a buffet at Bharat. The food was fresh, seasoned at “normal” or below, and it’s a great way to sample a variety of dishes including entrees, desserts (gulab jamun, a tiny fried ball made from milk powder and soaked in a light syrup, is a real treat), Indian breads and numerous fresh and interesting condiments such as mint chutney and tamarind sauce. For about $10, you’ll find plenty to try.
At dinner, several dishes we tried stood out. If you like fried okra, order the bhendi. The okra is cut in small rounds and fried until there’s a good ratio of crisp to chewy bits. It’s not battered, but heavily coated in a mix of warm, not hot, spices. The seeds are nutty and crunchy. There’s no sauce with the dish, which comes with rice. We ate it alone, with raita, and with the slightly sweet tamarind sauce.
The masala dosa was superb, definitely among the best I’ve tasted. A dosa is a very large, paper thin, slightly crisp crepe that is typically rolled. Here the dosa is folded in a loose triangular shape, stuffed with a spicy mound of mashed potatoes studded with onion seeds. We cut an “X” on top of the center filling and scooped it out with pieces of dosa. A small bowl of sambar, a lentil soup thin and flavorful enough to be a sauce, came with it. It’s a meal alone, or order it to split as an appetizer.
The chicken biryani was very good. The enormous rice dish could feed two, perhaps four people, but Indian food is much like Asian food when it comes to sharing. Order a variety and pass the dishes family style. There was nothing we didn’t like, though I found the goat saagwala (the menu lists lamb, but goat was available) oddly bland. The goat was tender, but the spinach it was cooked in didn’t have as much flavor as I expected.
Bharat is in a small strip center that faces Winchester, between Hacks Cross and Forest Hill-Irene. There’s little ambience, and when we arrived at 7 on a Saturday night, not much of a crowd, either.
Though the posted hours say the restaurant closes at 9:30, tables began to fill around 8:45. When we left, the restaurant was almost full of Indian diners placing their orders, so it seems likely the place is open later when there is business; call ahead.
Bharat International Market & Restaurant
Address: 3675 Southwind Park Cove, #104
Reviewer’s choice: Masala dosa ($6.99); chicken biryani ($10.99); okra fry ($9.99); chicken 65 ($7.99 appetizer); onion pakoda (fried onion fritters appetizer, $3.99)
Alcohol: None. Take your own wine to pair with the spicy food, and remember to take your own glasses and a corkscrew, too.