The next day, she made dal. "Just for you," she told me. In truth, it hadn't been for me as much as because of me. I'd already eaten at her house twice that week, pork curries thick with cumin and turmeric, cooked vegetables coyly hiding a heavy hand of Thai chile. Her basmati never failed; its preparation was always executed with an easy talent in her kitchen. No doubt her dal, like all of her food, was a recipe honed to perfection by her ancestors and a task she performed with the practice of an entire lifetime behind her.
It had been at lunch the day before that I'd wished for dal when there hadn't been any. After the meal, in the car and driving back to Boise under a lazy winter noontime sun, her husband stated the obvious: "After all the great food my wife has cooked for you, it sure was nice of you to treat us to lunch." We all laughed. Lunch—and my culinary return to her two great dinners earlier in the week—had been a failure for the record books.
I have a theory. A meal gets its proper judgment with the passage of time. Leaving a restaurant, when the taste of dessert still clings to your tongue or a hint of garlic still lingers, you're much too enmeshed to fully understand what transpired. What really matters is how the whole experience seeds itself in your memory. When the din of other diners has faded and the smell of naan is no longer in the air, it's the memory of the meal as it forms the next day that will take you back for another.
Or keep you away.
For me that memory spun entirely around a single bite at India Place—a most regrettable morsel of tandoori chicken. What had been a functional if mediocre meal to that point was promptly cut at the knees without mercy and relegated to entirely disappointing in retrospect. Among the crimes committed by the offending chicken, the most serious wasn't the dry meat that had resulted from a reheating or two, but the distinctly putrid flavor of old flesh.
Had the tandoori chicken not been the last in a very long selection of chicken-based buffet choices, the rest of the meal might not have suffered as much in comparison. Of the other chicken dishes—chicken curry, chicken tikka masala and chicken makhani—the makhani's honey and butter finish stood out but chose not to live up to its full potential, being without garnishes of nuts and raisins. Like the makhani, the tikka and the curry also presented themselves as lazy versions of dishes that are quite capable of being much more. The flavors were all there, but the sauces were too loose and the ingredients lacking.
None of the buffet dishes spurred us into a second helping. Basmati and pilaf rice were average. Potato pakora was better than french fries, but not a far cry in difference (vegetable pakora in the same batter would have been my preference). Spicy cabbage was, unfortunately, the only hint of heat on the steam tables. And a samosa or two would have been welcomed by the vegetarian crowd, who would have found little to choose from among all the chicken options.
The passage of time was not kind to my memory of India Place. My sense is that dinner is a far superior affair to the paltry lunch buffet, but I'll be honest: I have a seat with my name on it in a kitchen that's tried and true. It's a place where the curry is always spicy and the vegetables don't disappoint. And if I ask nicely, it's a place where I'll even get dal.
—Rachael Daigle believes in the curry fairy.