Among Westbrook’s varied dining options, The Dancing Elephant is one to consider for good Indian food
The vogue of Asian cuisine in America remains remains high in cities across the country. But of all the compelling choices we have here — to wit, Miyake, Boda, Long Grain, Suzuki Sushi, Empire Chinese and other iterations of Southeast Asian fare – good Indian cooking remains elusive. The cuisine is not trendy, with no sustainably sourced ingredients presented on stacks of small plates; and the core words local and organic don’t find their way into the menu-speak of the typical Indian restaurant.
But recently a friend told me about The Dancing Elephant in Westbrook and urged me to check it out. Admittedly I’m generally disappointed when I cross the city line into the dank canyons of Westbrook’s dining morass. Getting there is half the problem — the crawl of Brighton Avenue and the confusing traffic circle that takes you to two Route 25s (Hint: bear left at the traffic circle.)
Once you’re on the main drag, Main Street’s disparate stretch of eateries come like bumps in the road. Casa Novello is Italian-American sleight of hand; Blue Burrito is lackluster Tex-Mex grub with leaden tortilla wraps; Fajita Grill is often clinched in the vise of health inspections and other violations and Siam Square offers truly uninspired Thai cooking (yes, I’ve been).
Yet there are two exceptions: chef James Tranchemontagne’s inventive gastro pub, The Frog and Turtle – far-flung but worth the trip (and I need to re-visit it soon) – as is the Catbird Creamery (846 Main St.), which makes the absolute best ice cream.
That leaves the Dancing Elephant scattered in the heap. But after one initial dinner visit our party of three was duly impressed. The restaurant has been there for more than two years, yet remains overlooked. For a short while they had a branch on Wharf Street in the Old Port. But that was felled in the fire of last year that also briefly affected Central Provisions and Street & Co. Dancing Elephant, however, didn’t re-open.
My two friends were meeting me at the restaurant where I arrived first (I suffer the curse of always being early). After learning that the parking lot behind these restaurants is basically one big traffic jam that empties onto Bridge Street I discovered the lot adjacent to the Bank of America building, which is more convenient.
The L-shaped dining room is ringed by a long bar as you enter with a row of tables along the wall of windows facing the street. The motif is modern and cool. The problem with the central dining space, however, is the bar’s mounted TV. Generally bar TVs are muted, but here it blared for a group of men at the bar ranting with raving after each play of the World Cup being televised. Take note, in the ell is an area that’s has private booths and is much quieter. I didn’t chose to sit there because I wanted to observe the action in the main dining area.
As the evening progressed, however, the room started to fill up – locals probably – some with young children and other tables with couples and foursomes. Yet the TV blasted the whole time as though set for the hard-of-hearing. If the restaurant wants more business, turning off the telly would help.
But here’s the good news: The food is actually pretty good and probably the best example of Indian cooking in Greater Portland. (Yes, dear readers, I haven’t yet made it to the highly touted Tulsi in Kittery, which Travel and Leisure deemed as one of the best in the US.)
The menu offers a great selection of breads, which are baked in clay ovens. We chose the Kashmiri Naan. It’s a delicious crispy bread that’s filled with raisins, cashews and almonds. Honey on the side would have been a nice touch but none was offered. Some of the slices, though, weren’t baked all the way through. We mentioned this to our waiter, and he voluntarily brought out another plateful that was perfection.
The menu is huge and offers typical preparations of chicken, lamb, vegetarian, seafood (Bay of Bengal specialties) and tandoori.
For an appetizer, a combo plate contained samosa with potatoes; a mix of vegetables in pakora, a fritter fried in a mildly spicy batter; tikki, a potato pancake and pappadam, a thin wafer-like bread made with chickpea flour. The usual condiment tray offered tamarind, red-onion chutney and mint in which to dip these.
For a main course one guest had the Lamb Saag—chunks of very tender meat that was set in a creamy spinach sauce and held the usual mix of cumin, coriander and cardamom. But the sauce was gently exotic and ladled from its serving crock over moist basmati rice made the dish interesting.
I chose the chicken Tikka Tandoori, big cubes of barbecued chicken was marinated in yogurt and served sizzling and steaming in its big clay pot with a heady blend of spicy caramelized onions.
A serving of Shrimp Vindaloo was an excellent dish of big, meaty shrimp in a mildly spicy curry sauce that had very good nuances of flavor.
On a relative basis, this was four-star fare. But as our expanding restaurant scene in Greater Portland continues its trek across Asian themes, a nod to fine Indian cooking—fusion or otherwise—could be timely.
New Chef Alert:
Empire Chinese, known for its dumplings and Cantonese stir fry, has announced the hiring of a new stir-fry master, Wei Sook, who hails from the world-class kitchens of Hakkasan MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Hakkasan offers at its 12 international locations “authentically modern” Cantonese cooking. New stir-fry dishes will be introduced in the coming weeks at Empire Chinese. This is truly exciting to have such a master Chinese chef cooking in Portland.