Darbar Indian Restaurant (This restaurant is now closed)
423 West Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Review Date: (prior to 1997)
Reviewers: Meg Gallagher, Jeremy Horne, Liz Nulton, and others (?)
Let me disclose at the outset that I am no connoisseur of Indian food. Far from it. I have never liked it. The substance of the stuff is familiar enough -- common vegetables and legumes and beans and the like. But Indian spices, for me, curry no favor. And the presentation, in my experience, too often leans toward the mushy and soupy. Perhaps my sampling of the cuisine has been insufficient. Perhaps I am overly critical. Whatever. All my observations, in any event, are in fact good-natured, if, on occasion, adolescent, dismissive, or crude.
Darbar Indian Restaurant itself is a comfortable place. There were scattered glass-topped tables in the smallish seating area, with real plates and silverware. The lights were dim for dinner. Liz Nulton thought the atmosphere was "typical of Indian restaurants: okay -- not great."
The menu is big. There are, count 'em, eighty-seven different items (you don't actually have to count them, because they are numbered). There are twelve Indian breads available (number fourteen through twenty-five) ranging from naan (unleavened freshly baked bread) to poori (whole wheat flour puffed bread, deep fried).
Without Dilip to guide us, I introduced our group and our mission to the waiter and, noting that number nine was Darbar's Choice (a tasty combination of appetizers), I said, "everything that's vegetarian, bring it." We got a host of things, including pakoras (fried fresh vegetable fritters) which were "very good" and samosas (crisp spiced patties with vegetable stuffing; "plain and mushy, like a partly cooked frozen dinner"). The bread was insubstantial and unappetizing.
There are sixteen "Vegetarian Specialties" (numbers fifty-six through seventy-one). Liz tried the Malai Kofta (#64, ground balls of mixed vegetables with nuts, tomatoes, and onion sauce, served with rice, $7.95). Said Liz: "The malai kofta was okay. I thought the texture would be better. The vegetables were pureed, then fried. I would have liked it better if there was more texture." According to my notes, my reaction was "blah".
Meg Gallagher tried the Alu Chole (#70, fresh potatoes and chick peas cooked with green onion and tomato sauce with a touch of garlic and ginger, served with rice, $6.95). For Meg, the "taste was consistently good, but not memorable"; I liked the chickpeas myself.
Jeremy Horne dug Darbar. He had aloo guchhy (#63, potatoes and mushrooms cooked with tomatoes, green onion and tomato sauce and a touch of garlic and ginger, served over rice, $6.95), some dhal (#1, lentil soup, $1.95), and pappadam (#5, thin pieces of crisp lentil bread, $.95), and washed it all down with lassi (#87, yogurt drink, $1.75). He ate it all then commented, "Ordering by number is as much fun as paint by number. You get it right 85% < X < 95% of the time. Good food, atmosphere semi-Indian, and I wish they had a branch in the RTP." Then he collected everybody's leftovers in a carry-out box.
I selected number seventy-two (the year of my high school graduation), the vegetarian thaali ($10.95), one of the "Chef's Recommendations". I got palak paneer (homemade cheese cooked with fresh spinach seasonings and spices), which was "alright," and channa masala (chickpeas, onions and tomatoes cooked in a tangy sauce), which was, according to my notes, "blah." My entree also came with tandoori rhoti (round whole wheat bread baked in tandoori oven), pappadam, and dhal. And raitha (freshly made yogurt spiced with cucumber and tomato, "yuk"). And dessert (numbers eighty through eighty-four on your Hit Parade). It was, according to my notes, "yuk: soapy" (evidently something flavored with rose water).
On the plus side, it was a lot of food. As Meg observed, "I was most impressed with the price and portions." The restaurant's largesse was definitely Jeremy's gain.
It was not a busy night at Darbar, which allowed the host cum waiter to devote his undivided inattention to us. He seemed harried and was wary, even defensive, when he learned we were reviewing the place. Meg noted dryly that the "service was not exactly anticipatory".
But I'll be positive about Darbar. As a wag once said, "for people who like this kind of food, this is the kind of food those people will like." Whatever.