Thoughts From All Over: Darbar, Victory 44, Plus the Phoenix-Like Big E and Curry Leaf!

Have you been to Darbar, the jewel in the crown of the local India Palace chain-let? I have, and it’s the hardest of all restaurants to review because it’s exactly, precisely… pretty good.

And pretty good restaurants are the hardest of all to review because if you mention what’s not great about them, they start to sound bad, and if you mention what’s good, they start to sound great, and it’s hard to hie to the message of: Pretty good. It’s stylish and chic though. Darbar took over the former Pizza Nea, and after that former Indio space on Lake Street, near ground-zero of Uptown. The space is stylish, has pearly white booths, brand-new furniture, and a little of a disco-airport vibe—the walls adorned by a grab-bag of art that has no particular through-line: A fashion model face, an Orientalist oil painting reproduction (Delacroix?), and tigers. The wine and beer program is a delight, comprehensive, and while a little generic in the wine offerings, so much better than what everyone else offers—except Om and Dancing Ganesha. I’ll take it. The menu will seem very been-there, seen-that to anyone who has dined at the India Palaces, but really there’s nothing wrong with that. That is in fact the food we Minnesotans have proved to love most of all: Saag everything, vindaloo everything, butter chicken, butter chicken, butter chicken. It’s a menu that has been exhaustively focus-grouped and the food is, as I said, pretty good. Garlic naan was toasty and crisp; veggie samosas were crisp on the outside and flavorful inside; lamb saag with spinach was spinachy; beef vindaloo was tomatoey. The best thing I tried were the “Sikh kabobs.” Nicely flavored kabobs made of ground lamb, herbs, and spices, they were tender, flavorful, and just exactly what they should be. The worst thing I tried were the Tandoori scallops, which our server recommended when I asked if there were any don’t-miss unique dishes. They were fishy and funky and not right at all. It seemed like the restaurant’s experiment in giving upscale customers what they want and… Nope. So, it’s pretty good! A great option for a first date, a business lunch, and… that’s all I can think of. I have a pretty good idea of the best Indian restaurant in town right now and it’s either Dancing Ganesha or The Place I Write About For Our December Issue (which I don’t want to tip my hand about right now, but subscribers, watch your mailboxes! We went to the printer this week.) But Darbar is cute and stylish and there’s nothing wrong with it. So go! If you want to.

Darbar India Grill
1221 W. Lake St., Mpls.

Cafeteria, A Very Happy Place
When you go to Darbar, perhaps you will walk past Cafeteria, the uberhotspot, to get there. And perhaps it will be a Friday, and perhaps you will notice their sign advertising their Happy Hours: 2 – 7 p.m.; 10 p.m. till close. And for the math nerds in the house, I present:

Non-happy hours on a Friday at Cafeteria: 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.; 7 – 10 p.m. Total = 5.5 non-happy hours.
Happy hours on a Friday at Cafeteria: 2 – 7 p.m.; 10 p.m. – 2 a.m. Total = 9 happy hours.

Glass half full! Glass half full!

Victory 44, Another Happy Place
As the parade leader for all the hype surrounding Travail up in Robbinsdale I say: Good for you kids, you deserve all your fans and praise. To the rest of you however, I say: You’re really not waiting two hours for a table at Travail, are you? You do know that Victory 44, where this happy cooking crew first formed, is going strong, don’t you? To prove that this is so, I went last weekend for brunch and my meal was pretty great.

Highlights: Fantastic French press coffee served with a little timer that beeped down to the exact second the coffee needed to be pressed. (I lose track otherwise, do you?) Surly “The Darkness” on tap; one of my friends introduced me to the caffeinated cocktail of pouring a shot of coffee into the beer. Yum! It’s like an anti-Mimosa, in the best possible sense. More highlights: A truly exquisite plate composed of cheesy gougeres, whipped frothy piles of mortadella cream, and little bit of apple-cider aspic dip, the warm pouffy bites of buttery bread in a slightly sweetened, rich, savory, porky, light-as-a-feather mortadella cream and, wow. Also gorgeous, a charcuterie plate featuring house-made mortadella, a few different terrines, chicken liver mousse, and just-made crackers as big as my arm. Almond agnolotti were eye-opening and delicious; for this dish, fresh house-made pasta is stuffed with an almond base and topped with mascarpone cream, a frothy bit of gorgonzola foam (which the kitchen guys referred to wryly as Cheeze Whizz). A plate of roast beets presented whole, pickled, whirred into sauces and frozen as sorbet was oohed and ahed over, then quickly devoured. The only thing I had which I wasn’t crazy about was a sour-cherry French toast which was crisp as can be from its time in the deep fryer, but everyone else at my table loved it and fell upon the dish, making short work of it. When the kitchen saw I didn’t love the French toast, they rushed a plate of fresh-herb scrambled eggs and bacon my way. I was terrifically impressed.

The current kitchen crew at Victory 44 isn’t as infectiously personality-plus as the group who opened Travail, but the food is quite nearly as good, and if Travail hadn’t opened we’d all be singing the praises of Victory 44 as a restaurant of the year—so don’t forget about them! They’re still doing great work. They deserve some patrons! I was one of only two tables when I went for my brunch, and that just isn’t right.

Big E and Curry Leaf/Sri Lanka Curry House
Speaking of still working, did you know you can still taste the foods of long-gone, much-mourned restaurants Big E’s and the Curry Leaf Deli? Strange but true. Also strange but true: These ventures are both best tracked by Facebook:

Curry Leaf: For anyone eating in Minnesota in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Sri Lanka Curry House and Curry Leaf were touchstones, and revelations. Incredibly fresh, evocatively spiced Indonesian food. Heather Jansz was one of the forces behind the food there, and the Sri Lanka native is now offering her food through nights at the Blue Plate Restaurant Group restaurants (Edina Grill, Highland Grill, Longfellow Grill etc.); this event on November 10th looks truly spectacular. If you ever spent time in Indonesia, or the Netherlands, and long for real Indonesian food, you can’t miss this.

Big E’s: Chef Eric Austin is famous as one of the best soul food chefs in the history of the North Star state, and if you feel a great sadness in the lack of soul food in your life since his restaurant, Big E’s, closed, I have good news for you! Big E is presenting a gospel-brunch at the Wesley Methodist church. (That’s the big red Richardson Romanesque church that’s contiguous with the downtown Minneapolis Convention Center, on the road from the Convention Center to Ichiban, Nicollet Mall, Loring Park, and so on.) Follow chef Eric Austin on Facebook, and I’ll put the church address below as well. The next one is scheduled for December 12, at 11 a.m.

Wesley United Methodist Church
101 East Grant St., Mpls, 612-871-3585

And Congrats to Me! And The Dara & Co. Team!
Ooh, and here’s some late-breaking news: I just learned that this very blog, Dara & Co., won a silver medal at last night’s Minnesota Magazine & Publishing Association Awards—thanks, everyone! All in all our little company won 44 awards; Minnesota Monthly won for Magazine of the Year, and took home the gold medal for overall excellence. won a silver medal. My restaurant column took home the gold for best column, and my food magazine, Real Food, took home the bronze for overall excellence. Hey, we’re crowding the podium like a bunch of East Germans on steroids! I kid. We all work incredibly hard, and I’d like to thank our publisher Steve Fox for leading a company that believes in treating our readers like you’re as smart as I know you are. I’d like to thank Joel Hoekstra, our editor-in-chief and a thoughtful, insightful person who I’m lucky to call my friend. Thanks too to Sara Soli, our marketing poobah who makes Dara and Co. possible and fun. And I’d like to thank Kelly Fitzgerald, the producer of this blog who wears more hats and does more in a week than it is really possible to believe, as well as our contributors Jason DeRusha, Marie Flanagan, Stephanie Meyer, and Elizabeth Dehn. Above all: Thanks to you readers! I am one of the luckiest writers in the world, getting to write for an audience who appreciates both big words and dumb puns, both complicated ideas and simple ones. And here’s to the future! The best has yet to come.