Thursday, July 31, 2014

When an Old Friend Gets a Facelift: Wild Cook's Indian Grill

I'll admit it, I was one of the few people that loved India Mahal. Yes, it was a dive, but that gave it character, and its character gave it a local-hole-in-the-wall feel. So I was a bit crushed when I saw that it had closed and changed ownership--a sign on the door promising that a new incarnation, Wild Cook's Indian Grill, would be opening soon. Seriously, India Mahal had chicken and lamb saag that I'd offer up a few newborns for--it was that good. I thought for sure that I'd never have it again.

First impressions are hard to shake. Last Friday, my partners and I drove by, saw that it had reopened under its new name, and stopped in. No sooner had we walked in, we were told the Friday buffet was no longer going on. Moreover, as I was met by two bubbly white women, I looked around and saw several hipsters and heard modern alternative music playing. It was like that summer vacation where your preppy friend becomes the emo-goth princess...but insists that it's legit and not just a phase.

I turned around and walked out...then fumed as I thought about a "plan B" buffet for the night.

I'm a fat man. I'm an emotional man. I love food. I own these parts of my person with no shame. So I may have gotten a bit emotional that Friday night...or it may have been my negative-number blood sugar and need for a virtual troth to correct it. Either way, I thought today that I'd make another attempt at Wild Cook's, to see if they at least had a lunch buffet.

New seating style in the back
Look, India Mahal was a dive. We all know that. As I learned, it was a repurposed filling and service station, so it was never designed to be a dining space. Lawn sheds next to the building housed most of the food. The interior had....character--if by "character" you mean christmas lights, subdued (another way of saying "extremely dark) lighting, a fusebox marked "ELECTRICAL ROOM," and an AC so poor it complimented the food by providing a humid, toasty Indian climate. Free sense-o-rama dining!

The rear dining room
The big change was the badly-needed facelift on the property. No details were left unnoticed here. Obviously, the dining area got the most attention--no more christmas lights, no more "ELECTRICAL ROOM" door, no more darkened, humid, hot room. The new paint is bright, a purple and green, and the new AC unit was keeping the hot Raleigh summer at bay. But even smaller things brought a new gaze to an old space. The front windows are now bare, and it's very easy to see where the door of the old filling station was. The hallway leading to the bathrooms is now lit, and has a huge mirror at the end, opening up the formerly claustrophobic space. The bathrooms could still use some work, but the new owner has at least started to tidy and clean it up. The booths in the rear were converted into a cushioned, open seating area. In spite of the changes, there are still little touches of India Mahal there, like the art sandwiched between the table and glass covering it.

The new buffet area
Though the kitchen was open for orders, it seems that the buffet was the main draw for lunch, and I had no problem with that. The old hot tables have been replaced with new, elegant-looking clamshell style servers--with new tags replacing the old, hastily-written ones. The cold line, with the salads and chutneys, is gone, though it appears that most of the hot line has remained the same in terms of offerings.

The TV was still on the old column that it had been mounted to before the change in owners. They were playing Indian music videos. My recent "thing" has been to sneak out and catch the Bollywood films at the local Regal Crossroads 20, so I thought that it gave the atmosphere a nice, modern touch. I don't dislike traditional Indian music, but if Wild Cook's is looking to break away from India Mahal's old image, they're better served by hipper, more modern music. It still creates atmosphere, but not the cliche.

Plate one...
Of course, my big concern was the food. I saw some new offerings (like a kidney bean curry), but I also saw a lot of the old India Mahal standbys...including lamb saag. To my surprise, most of the food was almost the same, though with a bit more heat in the spices. The breads were decent, though the naan did taste a bit overdone--not quite burned, but just on the brink of it. Though the taste of the sauces on the tandoori and butter chicken was familiar, the quality of the chicken was different. The chicken legs on the tandoori were more plump, and the firmness on the butter chicken didn't have that mix of softness that you see with frozen dark cuts of the bird. The lamb saag was the same lamb saag I'd grown to love over the years--just in a bright, well-lit, air-conditioned dining room. Then I looked up to see a familiar face--one of the old India Mahal cooks--the same slacks hiked up well over his navel. We smiled and exchanged nods.

Plate two...
But while the staple dishes were there, a few things had changed. The absence of a cold line meant that a few features of the meal had to be redone for the new buffet. The meal began with a small salad (with premade, restaurant-grade dressing) brought out from the kitchen, and as I sat down, my waitress brought out a complimentary fruit sampler and chutney. The chef had been experimenting with the chutney and wanted feedback from customers.

"Wild Chutney"
Now, I was impressed. In years of dining out, aside from the awkwardly-scripted interactions at hibachi steakhouses, I'd never had a chef get hands-on with diners like that. The chutney (a creation he was calling "Wild Chutney") was amazing--solid heat with a playful touch of mint. As I hit the buffet a second time, to sample what I couldn't the first time, the chef came out and introduced himself. Again, I was impressed. He did acknowledge that he wanted to try bringing even more flavor into the restaurant--like salad dressings in particular. I guess he's aware that diners know the dressing is from a commercial bottle, and I'm anxious to see what he'll do in the coming months. It was really refreshing to see a chef engage diners as an artist, and not just a shrouded figure in the kitchen, lording over the stove. That personal engagement really made an impression! I'd read reviews elsewhere about the "grumpy old men" who ran India Mahal, and never really noticed that. They weren't outgoing, but they were always attentive to customers' needs. However, this level engagement with the chef--both the chutney and conversation--really enhanced the meal. We talked a bit more about what he wanted to do in the coming months with the menu.

Oh, lamb saag, I thought I almost lost you...
He also mentioned that most of the old India Mahal recipes had stuck around, but he was turning up the spice on a few. I could already tell that he'd modified the heat, as my sinuses were clearing quickly after my first plate. This is not a bad thing for me.

Sadly, though, he said that the evening buffets were discontinued. As long as lunch was an option, I can live with that. He also mentioned that he wanted to give his staff a break once a week, so he was closing Sundays. Again, I can live with that.

Kulfa--buffet serving
With the cold bar gone, desserts came out of the kitchen--included with the buffet.  The rice pudding and gulab jamun were still offered. I figured that since Wild Cook's was using most of the India Mahal recipes (as well as one of the chefs), these hadn't changed. Instead, I opted for kulfi, which I had never had before. For a fat man, the portion was small--I'll admit it. But what I had was astounding--a frozen mix of pistachios and sweetened milk. I've since learned (come on, I try to do a little research here...oh fuck it, I was looking to see if I could make it at home, it was that good) that it's usually served in ramekins, but the presentation threw me a little--a small paper Dixie cup. Again, don't get me wrong, the food itself was amazing. I'm just not sure that the paper Dixie cup is the best delivery method here.

It's not that I wanted to dislike Wild Cook's when I went back today (lamb saag addiction knows no enemies, and any potential pusher is just that), I just didn't have that same sense of excitement that I had the Friday before...the one quickly dashed when it seemed that a favorite eatery had been turned into Raleigh's next-big-hipster-fad-diner. Bluntly stated, they had to work to win me over, and they did just that. The quality of the food is still there, and getting better. The dining room has been vastly improved, and a new, enthusiastic chef has brought energy to the joint. Though the location alone means that Wild Cook's will have to live in India Mahal's shadow for a few years--Wild Cook's Indian Grill took the best of its predecessor's qualities and polished the rough edges. For veterans of Raleigh's Indian restaurant scene, it's worth a revisit. For newbies, it's a good place to jump on--especially with the lunch buffet.

4/5 on Yelp

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