Shankranthi: Indian cuisine for an in-between budgetIndian food has been popular in Seoul for about six years now, and that has been long enough to polarize the various sub-continental ― Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi ― restaurants in town into two broad categories.
Category A is the full Monty: plush decor, dickie-wearing wait staff, an extensive menu and diners banqueting on the kind of exotic bounty that only a corporate credit card can buy. Category B is the bare bones: a canteen ambience, wait staff who smile a lot but speak little English or Korean, a scribbled menu and a clientele of migrant workers who most certainly do not have access to corporate plastic ― a fact which tends to be reflected in the rather basic ingredients making up the dishes. Does any establishment bridge this rather broad gap?
Perhaps. On the edge of Itaewon, on the low hill looming over Noksapyeong subway station and the U.S. 8th Army base, is Shankranthi Indian Restaurant. It appears, truth be told, pretty basic from the outside. The entrance consists of a loosely secured orange tarpaulin flapping in the breeze; to one side of this are faded messages of welcome scrawled on an ancient white board that looks as if it has been liberated from a nearby hagwon.
Things are more cheerful inside. It is clean, brightly lit, and decorated with colorful Indian tapestries. There is a small glass cabinet selling Indian jewelry, and a stand selling curry mixes, chutneys and powdered custard. There are 30 seats, all jammed fairly tightly; the clientele when we were there consisted of one Indian couple and a motley collection of English teachers whose accents placed them from Edinburgh to Auckland (and most points in between). Our waitress was Indian, spoke perfect English and seemed very pleasant ― if somewhat rushed.
Menu runs to several pages, and is moderately priced. Fare is predominantly Northern Indian, with an above-average range of vegetarian dishes. We skip starters and cut straight to the chase: mushroom, spinach and corn curry (8,000 won) and lamb vindaloo (10,000 won). We are asked how we would like them spiced; we request moderate and very, respectively. The vegetarian curry is creamy of texture and khaki of color (khaki, of course, derives from Indian cuisine; British troops in the 19th century dyed their uniforms with curry powder). It is pleasantly spiced and the mushroom predominates ― recommended. I gingerly sample the lamb vindaloo. It proves strong on tomato flavor and has plenty of vinegar ― so far, so good. After that first hesitant mouthful I wait. Will the incendiary effect have a delayed-action fuse? No... dare I try another mouthful? I do... and still, nothing. Although vindaloo is one of the world’s most fearsome curries, and we specifically asked for “very hot,” this is barely spicy enough to bring a blush to a virgin’s cheeks. Anticlimax.
Next up: vegetable biryani (i.e., a spiced rice dish; 8,000 won) and chicken tandoori (16,000 won). The biryani uses long-grain rice and is mixed with beans, peas and carrots, but is not really as dry or as fluffy as it should be. The chicken is a generous portion (I suppose one good thing to come out of the current Asian flu epidemic will be cheaper fowl ― or more of it), and is nicely colored and spiced on the outside, but is wetter on the inside than one would expect from something out of a clay oven. The nan bread (2,000 won), however, is first-class: large, hot, dry and soft. To drink are beers, soju, soft drinks and a few wines.
An important point: Shankranthi will close its doors Sunday. However, it will reopen on the same day as New Delhi, a slightly more upscale establishment that is literally across the street. The fact that this restaurant has been in business for over six months and is moving to more upscale premises moves it beyond Category B (where one does not expect a place to survive longer than a month or so); but in terms of pricing, it still, thankfully, falls short of Category A.
Verdict: So there you have it: not the best Indian restaurant in town, but one of the best values. Judging from the conversation at other tables (this is the kind of place where you cannot help but overhear your neighbors ― so if you want to discuss romance or business, this may not be the choice), the vegetarian curries are the best bets. In our meal, this proved to be the case.
English menu: Available.
Location: Itaewon. From Noksapyeong subway station, proceed down the Itaewon main street; at Harubang Gift, turn left and take the narrow street that leads up the steep hill. Shankranthi is about 60 meters up this road, on the left.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily (opens at 5:30 p.m. Mondays).
Telephone: (02) 792-7585.
Dress code: Casual.
by Andrew Salmon