Spice world

Gaylord India Restaurant

1501 14th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 441-6700

Gaylord India Restaurant, located just a couple of blocks from the Capitol, is new to Sacramento but not to the world, as the awning listing global locations proclaims. It is perhaps not a measure of my sophistication that I first encountered a branch of the restaurant group in a mall—albeit a very fancy mall—in Palo Alto, a good 10 years ago. I’m not sure if that branch is still around, but it was good then, and the new Sacramento Gaylord is good now, though its upmarket vibe, signaled by heavy cream tablecloths, flower arrangements, fairly high prices and even a wine list, is perhaps not what the Sacramento Indian-restaurant consumer has come to expect.

The wine list is not particularly adventurous, but its length and variety of choices (a page each of whites and reds, with a range of price points from just over $20 up to “I can’t afford it”) are much more in keeping with Gaylord’s apparent ambition than the usual truncated list you see at the average Indian joint. The Riesling by the glass, slightly sweet, was a good match for the range of spicy flavors. Better yet than the wine, however, and perfect on a hot summer night, was a mango lassi. It was the best version I’ve had of the classic: tart with yogurt, sweet (but not too sweet) with mango and coolly refreshing.

We started off with a vegetarian appetizer plate, an excellent way to sample a range of items. The pappadum listed on the menu were, unfortunately, missing in action on the platter, but we had two kinds of pakora—cauliflower and potato—as well as two samosas. The pakora were thickly battered rather than lacy and crunchy rather than crispy, and they were greaselessly fried so that the spicy coating was well-cooked around the tender vegetables. They were delicious with the tamarind chutney. I very much liked the impeccable samosas—made with crisp, light pastry that was a perfect contrast to the dense, spiced pea-and-potato filling—with the thinner mint chutney. Overall, there’s a great range of vegetarian choices here. At a table near us, people who seemed to be regulars were ordering a vegan meal, so if you don’t eat meat or dairy, Gaylord is an appealing option.

The main dishes presented plenty of choice; this would be a good place to go with a large group to sample a wider range of options. We especially wanted to try a tandoori dish. The shrimp arrived with an appetizing sizzle on the hot platter, onions and spices giving off a tempting aroma. The shrimp were quite large, but there were only seven or eight of them, so each bore a hefty price (the dish was priced at $19). They were extraordinarily salty and just a wee bit tough, something I’ve often found to be the case with shrimp cooked in the high heat of the tandoor. (Those fragrant onions, on the other hand, were excellent.) I live in hope that the perfect tender tandoor shrimp will someday emerge, but if Gaylord can’t deliver, maybe I should just quit looking.

The other tandoor item we tried, the naan, was incredible. Tender and hot and buttery, it had a smoky, lightly charred edge to its flavor. I would go back for the naan alone and would try all the stuffed and seasoned varieties of bread, too. It was just that good.

We also got rice; I can never decide between the two carbohydrate delivery systems at Indian restaurants, since both are so delicious. The rice was perfectly cooked: loose-grained and aromatic, with complex hints of spices (we found whole cloves in the dish) as well as fresh green peas dotting it. When basic sides are special and prepared with care, that’s a good clue as to the kitchen’s overall dedication.

Our sauced dishes, too, were successful. Gaylord offers a full complement of oft-seen basics like chicken tikka masala, but we chose to try things that pop up on menus less frequently. I loved the spicy, flavorful complexity of keema matar—ground lamb with peas—which had an appealingly rustic, homey quality and packed a sneaky wallop.

Tamarind chicken presented more of its charms right up front, with a bright brick-red sweet and sour sauce coating chunks of white-meat chicken. On close inspection, these proved to be the bright orange-pink of tandoori chicken, so I suspect this dish may be a way of using up the kitchen’s extras. Still, it reminded me slightly, and appealingly, of Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce. Its mild, tangy sweetness was a nice contrast to more fiery dishes.

Desserts are represented by the usual run of pastries, puddings and ice creams. We tried kheer (rice pudding) and liked the floral, subtle cardamom flavor. Still, it was a little too liquidy, even for a dessert that is supposed to be un-thickened. I much preferred the dish of candied fennel seeds at the host station on the way out, which left me with a literal and figurative sweet taste in my mouth.