Long before Sanjay Patel opened Missoula's India Grill and Curry House, his grandfather made chai everyday for anyone who wanted it. This was in Gujarat, India, where three generations of Patel's family farmed together, cooked together and shared with others. His grandfather's spiced tea was famous.
"Two or three hundred cups some days," Patel remembers, "everyone came for his chai."
Patel immigrated to the United States in the late '80s. He lived in New Jersey, California and Idaho before moving to Montana 14 years ago. Missoula, he says, "is relaxed. People are kind and healthful. I wanted my son to grow up here."
For years, Patel, who until recently worked in the hotel business, hosted dinner parties with friends. He'd cook for them the food of his youth—everyone's favorite being the shrimp curry—and his friends pleaded with him to open a restaurant. Last December, when a space with a commercial kitchen became available on East Broadway, he finally obliged them.
I was born in New York City, and the only thing I miss about it—aside from my family and bodegas—is the food. I hate to promote cliché, but I will in the name of truth: some foods are made superlatively and ubiquitously in New York and nowhere else in the United States. The obvious items include bagels and pizza, but the lesser-known things are what I crave. Straightforward deli sandwiches, Chinese-style dumplings and kebabs from a street vendor are a few, but Indian food might top the list. That's why I was feeling grateful last week after eating at Patel's restaurant: Missoula has an Indian restaurant that is really freaking good.
First, some logistics. India Grill and Curry House is on the corner of North Adams and East Broadway a few blocks from the downtown post office. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The food comes thali-style, which means several different curries, rice, naan (an Indian flatbread that could easily replace all other breads in my life) and chutneys are served on a compartmented metal tray. According to Patel, the tray is paramount to the experience.
"My trays have six compartments," he says, holding up six fingers. "I want people to taste different flavors. It's the experience."
I have been to Curry House three times now, and on each visit there have been different items to choose from. The saag paneera mild curry with spinach and cubes of fresh cheese—was creamy and light and perfect on a wedge of naan. The vegetable korma was spicy but without heat, and the vegetables were tender but not mushy. The flavors are simple and delicious, and though the portions are generous, cleaning a tray of food does not leave you wanting a nap. Patel and his team, which includes his wife, son and family friends, clearly put care into their work, and nowhere is this more evident than in my favorite item on the menu.
Tandoori chicken is not easy to make. Skinless chicken thighs are rubbed with a spice blend, marinated in yogurt and cooked (traditionally in a tandoor oven) at very high heat, making it easy for them to turn out dry. Patel's chicken is anything but. He orders his spices from India and blends them himself. The chicken thighs are marinated for no less than 24 hours before being cooked under watchful eye. The result is a juicy piece of meat that is rich in flavor but light on the stomach. It will leave you wanting more.
Patel admits that owning a restaurant is hard and sometimes frightening. He is uncompromising in his methods and how he sources ingredients. He pays exorbitant shipping costs on the spices from India, but he believes they are essential to his food. Several Yelp reviewers have commented on feeling put off by the metal trays, but he believes thali is the best way to taste his food.
"Is it authentic? It's how I was taught. It's how I cook," he says. "It's who I am."
When Patel opened the restaurant last summer, he says the emotion he felt most powerfully was fear. He'd spent the last seven months renovating the space, perfecting recipes, paying a small staff—all the while creating no revenue. And the day he first unlocked the doors and flicked on the "open" sign, rather than relief, he felt terrified.
"I felt so scared. I love cooking for people. I didn't want to charge anyone," he says, perhaps channeling his grandfather serving cups of chai. "In my family food is a gift."
I, for one, am happy to pay for it.