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Among good fortunes I’ve known, one that I hold in highest esteem is having been born and raised in New York, because it has introduced me to such a wealth of epicurean artistry. Whenever I return there, I do so with but one desire apart from visiting relatives still residing there: finding a new place (or in some cases, revisiting a familiar one) to enjoy cuisine that is all but unavailable to me beyond its borders.
Had I been reared anywhere else in the world, I would obviously be a different person for many reasons, not the least of which would be my altered exposure to certain types of cuisine. Although I no longer reside there and have lived in multiple regions since departing, I can still say with honesty uncolored by any misguided hometown loyalty that I’ve never eaten as well or with as much variety as I did during my years working and playing throughout New York City. And although many reading this will disagree, I submit that no place else in the United States can claim a more concentrated and populous assemblage of ethnic cuisines. Nowhere else do recipes from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and virtually every global locale in between gather so densely. Nowhere else can a walking explorer scarcely progress a single block or wander down a single avenue without encountering foods and eating customs from one far-off land or another. It is the thing I continue to miss most about a city that is and will always be my hometown, but is no longer my home. As good fortunes go, I feel blessed to have been born in such a place, in such an age. And although, as the saying goes, you can’t go home again, every so often I am fortunate enough to locate a little piece of it, and recapture flavors as vivid and evocative of pleasant remembrances as any photograph. Such has been my experience with the food at Saagar Indian Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
My first taste of Indian cuisine happened over fifteen years ago in New York City, at a restaurant called Maurya. In its sunken dining space stuffy with summer humidity and no larger than my parents’ living room, I first experienced levels of fire and spice that would forever expand my view of food and how it should be eaten. It is against the tastes I enjoyed that August afternoon on Manhattan’s lower East side that I have since measured every other experience with regard to Indian restaurants. Until recently, most post-Maurya establishments that I’ve visited have served me fare that, while adequate in flavor and presentation, placed a distant second to what I first enjoyed all those years ago. More than a decade later, I am relieved to have at last found a place whose food is comparable in its power to delight me as that first tasting did. As Maryland Indian restaurants go, Saagar Indian Cuisine is superior to most, and equal to any for miles around.
The word Saagar means “ocean,” an apt analogy for the vast range of flavors from Northern and Southern India that are made available there. An order of vegetable samosas-pastry appetizers stuffed with cubed potatoes, green peas and exotic seasoning, then deep-fried to flaky perfection- is my typical choice of preludes to a meal, and offer a safe level of spice to those dipping a first wary toe into that ocean. It is but one offering that belies the apocalyptic levels of heat (more on this later) that people often mistake for this cuisine’s standard, for the liberal applications of curries and peppers that sometimes characterize its dishes. Lamb korma is another; the dried fruits that bejewel its creamy curry sauce infuse cubes of the tenderest meat with sweetness that should please most palates. The vegetable dish called dal makhani consists of black lentils slow-simmered with Indian spices and tomatoes, and makes a smoky-tasting complement to a meal. The aloo palak cooks cubed potatoes with minced spinach, and delivers a love tap of slightly higher heat than the korma. Chicken tikka masala’s tomato cream sauce marries the sweet and the savory; barbecued chicken cubes swimming with onion and bell peppers can never be wrong. Biryani dishes that assemble vegetables, shrimp, or chunks of grilled meat such as lamb or chicken amidst piles of fragrant Basmati rice bring enough of the heat to satisfy without cauterizing the taste buds. As for the lighting of the aforementioned apocalyptic firestorm that your palate will long remember (for better or worse, dependent entirely upon the individual) there is chicken or lamb vindaloo. Prepared in spicy curry sauce, vindaloo will generally be among the hottest items, if not the single hottest, on any Indian restaurant menu because the hot red chilies populating it deem this so. Proceed with caution when ordering this one, as its inferno isn’t for the beginner’s stomach. Having said that, daredevils like myself will relish the piquancy permeating the meats, as well as its subsequent inducement of perspiration and numbing of the lips.
As with my first Indian dining experience, Saagar’s dining room is smallish with walls wearing muted colors offering nothing to gush about. The lighting is somewhat dim after dark in a way perhaps intended to inspire feelings of romance, but that for some reason does not. But the room is always immaculately clean, its tables always neatly dressed, the air always herb-sweetened in a way that makes the restaurant’s inner atmosphere the true appetizer, and the thing you will first taste upon entering. Saagar also features a weekday lunch buffet for $8.95 ($10.95 on weekends) enabling patrons to sample from about a dozen of its offerings for a fixed and affordable price. And whatever marks it misses in terms of opulent décor, the food leaving its kitchen strikes with a heat-seeker’s accuracy. This is why, having added that heat-seeker to my arsenal of insulators against NYC dining nostalgia, I can happily recommend Saagar Indian Cuisine as easily the best of its kind in Gaithersburg, Maryland and beyond.
Saagar Indian Cuisine