It’s Saturday night in Redding and you are sweating bullets: Tonight you have a date with the object of your desires. You’ve done the meet-for-coffee and the safe lunch, caught a matinee showing of Pirates of the Caribbean, Part 16: Jack Sparrow Goes to Washington (did you notice how much Johnny Depp is beginning to resemble Keith Richard?) and bumped into each other at ShopKo while browsing the electric spatulas and dog polishers. You want to move this relationship up a notch. Or two. It’s time for the serious dinner. But where?
You grab the phone book and start thumbing through the Yellow Pages, hoping just the right place will leap out at you. Mexican, Mexican, fake Aussie, Mexican, cook-your-own-steak, overpriced, peanuts-on-the-floor, Mexican, nope nope nope. None of these places has the right mix of atmosphere, exotica, and je ne sais quoi that will make your intended realize you know a thing or two about romance. Your eyes fall upon the ad for Priya Indian Cuisine. Indian? The thought of Indian food brings back an unpleasant memory of the college cafeteria and some chicken curry that caused a week of gastric distress among the dorm residents. But someone at work mentioned they had dinner there and how great it was. And you know your potential love monkey has a taste for spicy food. You decide that anything that doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. If it turns out badly, maybe this will be a bonding experience you can laugh about later.
7 p.m.: This might have been a bad idea. Priya is situated in a strip mall at Four Corners. You can’t even see it from Churn Creek Road.; it’s way the hell in the back of a line of small businesses. There’s a laundromat nearby. Oh, Lordy, Lordy, what have I gotten myself into? But when you get out of the car and walk up to it, it doesn’t look that bad. Strings of lights illuminate rich draperies in the window. You peruse the menu in the window: no idea what any of this stuff is, but the prices seem reasonable. The two of you step through the door.
The first thing you notice are the exotic and spicy aromas. It’s nothing you can identify with certainty – it’s not Mexican, it’s not pizza, it’s definitely not steak – it’s something more. As you murmur to each other about the delicious air, a dapper Indian gentleman in a white shirt greets you and tells you it’s the buffet you’re smelling. He seats you; another gentleman approaches you to fill your water glasses. “Thank you,” he says before and after. Looking around, you’re surprised at the quiet elegance and serenity: Aren’t we in a strip mall? You’d never know it.
You give the menu a brief scan but you keep hearing the siren call of those come-hither aromas from the buffet. Your date gets up to have a look at the hot tables in the back of the restaurant. “It looks really good. I think that’s what I’m having.” A petite Indian woman approaches, resplendent in a sparkling sky-blue sari; she takes your order for two Kingfisher beers and directs you to help yourselves to the buffet.
Scanning the wide variety of dishes, chutneys, breads, sauces and unidentifiable courses, you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, but it smells so good you cannot resist. A small bowl of tomato chutney, some raita (yogurt with cucumbers), a few pieces of naan (soft, browned pita-like bread), samosas (vegetable-filled deep-fried fritters). You move toward the hot dishes – two kinds of rice, chicken tikka masala (chicken in a rich, creamy, orange-colored sauce), mutter paneer ( homemade cheese cooked with peas, onions, spices), lamb curry – chunks of lamb in a deep, rich brown sauce. There’s so much to choose from you can’t possibly try everything.
At a nearby table, a Richard Branson lookalike wearing a gold silk kurta tells his dining companions he hasn’t had Indian food like this since he left Kerala five years ago.
The seasonings are intriguing but never overwhelming. None of the dishes are spicy-hot. Plain basmati rice (which bears about as much resemblance to Minute Rice as 4-year-old aged Gouda does to Kraft Singles) soaks up the incredible brown curry sauce poured over the generous pieces of tender lamb. Mutter paneer has a surprising sweetness and lightness. Even what was labeled hot chilis at the buffet are mild, sweet, crunchy in their crisp batter. But things are heating up at your table. “Try this. It really isn’t hot” – you obediently open your mouth to be fed a bite of smoky, tender chicken. You spoon up some raita and feed your table partner a spoonful of tart yogurt salad, creamy and cold – the right foil for the spicy tastes to come. You tear off a piece of soft naan , scoop up some tikka masala sauce and offer it to your date, who eagerly devours it… then licks the sauce off your fingers.
“Um…ah… did you try the desserts?”
There are two desserts: one is a ho,t cardamom-scented rice pudding, the other a cool, sweet, mango puree with squares of perfumy mango. You try one. You try the other. You pour the mango over the rice pudding. Dimly you recall something from your college days flirtation with Indian culture and the Bhagavad-Gita and something about mangoes… But there aren’t really any aphrodisiacs, right? It’s all in your head… isn’t it?
On your way out the door you see a small bowl of mixed whole spices, Mukhwas. It is an after-dinner digestive and freshens your breath. This is no time to take chances. You take a small aromatic spoonful. The night is just beginning.
– Femme de Joie
Priya Indian Cuisine, 2937 Churn Creek Road, Redding, CA 96002, 530-222-3200 . Fax 530-222-3110. Open 7 days a week, 11 a..m – 2:30 p.m. for lunch, dinner 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. Lunch buffet Monday to Friday, $7.95, Saturday & Sunday $9.95. Dinner buffet on Friday & Saturday $13.95. Beer and wine. Onsite parking. Cash, credit and debit cards. Vegetarian and vegan options. Website at http://www.priyaindiancuisine.us/index.htm
Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more.