He ate: Spice world

By Mark Nixon

It was as if I had stumbled into the culinary equivalent of a “Seinfeld” episode. You know, the famous break-up episode, where the breaker-upper tells George, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

So that’s what it boils down to between Persis and me. I seem surrounded by family and friends who are head-over-heels about this Indian restaurant, parked in a high-end strip mall in high-end Okemos.

On separate occasions, the four people I dined with reveled in almost every morsel. The goat biryani, the spiced lamb, the yogurt-based sauce raita ... yada yada yada.

Me? Meh. Yet, based on this small and unscientific sampling, the polling is clear. It’s not Persis. It’s me.

My notion of spice is that it should be used to provide oomph — you should still be able to taste the main ingredients. Other wise, why not just mix up flour, water and spices and call it spice slurry?

Where Persis and I part company — shall we call this conscious uncoupling? — is the restaurant’s compulsion to add zip, zing and heat to nearly everything on the menu. I like meals of contrasting tastes and textures. Persis ascribes to a simpler theory: All spice, all the time. (Not surprisingly, when my checking account registered the Persis bill to my debit card, the charge went to Persis’ corporate headquarters, All Spice LLC).

I can hear the catcalls from here: What do you expect, Nixon, it’s an Indian restaurant! So before I come off as completely churlish and picayune, let me dish out a few compliments.

No. 1: By all means, order the pappad ($2.49). It’s the best thing on Persis’ menu — a baked concoction of lentil flour, cumin and salt. So thin and crisp, it alights on the table like a bird’s wing. It’s so addictive it should be classified as a controlled substance.

No. 2: High marks to the staff’s friendliness. They make you feel welcomed. Though the service was a bit uneven, their warmth was genuine.

No. 3: This place is quite affordable, especially at lunch. To get a passel of different tastes, there is the all-you-can eat weekend lunch buffet for $10.99. In addition to an array of warm entrees and spiced rices, help yourself to one or more of the chutneys, which can be used for dipping bread. My favorite was the cilantro and mint chutney, crisp and cool to the palate.

We now return to our regularly scheduled Spice World.

On our first visit, I noted that several items were marked as spicy. I told our server that I didn’t like overly spiced food, so I pointed to an entree that had no spice icon. “Oh, that’s fairly spicy,” our server said.

OK ... So I went with tandoori chicken ($10.99), which was not marked as spicy. Alas, it was. Not overly heated, but I still tasted the heat first, with the chicken clearly lagging in a supporting role.

My dining companion raved about the lamb curry ($12.99). She ate the leftovers for lunch the next day. I had one bite. That was plenty.

A friend had the same dish the following week, and declared it “tasty and spiced just right for my tastebuds. His wife ordered chicken tikka masala ($10.99). She loved it; I liked it. There were hints of cream and butter, which delivered a subtle nutty flavor. At least I could taste the flavor before the inevitable after-burn set in.

Are you sensing a pattern here? The lentil-based chutney: One bite and I was reaching for my water glass. The butter chicken was rich with butter, and I appreciated that. Then came the after burn.

There are some smaller grievances. One buffet dish had chunks of meat covered in sauce, and the chunks had bones attached. But, there were no knives in our silverware placings. So, basically, you picked up the sopping chunks of meat, separated meat from bone with your teeth, and reached for the napkins.

Slightly annoying are parts of Persis’ online menu. No prices are listed, the assumption being that since this is a corporate website, different Persis restaurants must charge different prices. At least one dish, a mulligatawny soup, was listed on the website’s menu but was absent from the actual restaurant menu.

And so my torrid affair with Persis is over, and, with apologies to T.S. Elliot, it ended not with a bang but a whimpering plea: More water!