EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Finding a gem of a restaurant in a strip mall is akin to discovering a pearl hidden in your oysters on the half-shell. The chances are a cool one in a million. But that is exactly what we found at a spur-of-the-moment meal at Feather Cafe & Grill, located in a little strip mall on the outskirts of the English Creek Shopping Center.
The feather referred to here is that of the peacock, the proud national bird of India. The front door, walls and heavy wooden chairs are emblazoned with peacocks and their plumage. Even the menu includes a real peacock feather symbolizing the beauty and elegance of the bird and the pride with which the kitchen turns out their national specialities.
We love when a restaurant introduces the customer to the cuisine via a sampling of highly spiced tastings. A small ceramic tray with three offerings included a tamarind chutney, marinated onions and a surprisingly spicy mint-and-coriander paste, all served with a basket of paper-thin crisp bread. Our hostess prompted us to dip or pour the sauces onto the flatbreads.
We were first served a soup and salad, which the waiter said came with one of our entrees, so we shared. The salad was carrot, tomato, cucumber and green pepper chopped into lengths and served with a creamy yogurt dressing. The soup was a flavorful, thin chicken broth with a hint of green herbs, which our server could only describe as chicken soup. It was simple but tasty.
Our first appetizer was also a sampler, Feather's non-vegetarian platter ($9.99) with batter-dipped chicken pakodas, beef and green-pea Samosa in a fried pastry crust, and tandoori chicken wings with a mild green-pepper-and-ginger paste. Served on a tiny silver plate, this was a good introduction for a beginner, since everything was good but nothing was exceptionally spicy. Aloo tikki channa chaat ($5.99) - round baked-potato cakes cut into wedges, then topped with chickpeas and a yogurt, coriander and tamarind chutney with chopped tomato and red onion - on the other hand, was a good introduction to the spicier side, both heat and varied spices, in what we thought was a great dish.
Boti kabab ($16.99) was composed of cubes of highly marinated lamb, grilled in the tandoor and served over a julienne of vegetables, mostly onion, cabbage and carrot, served on a super-heated sizzle plate. The sauce was served on the side and was as complex as any from the French repertoire. We guessed mostly yogurt, cumin and curry spiced, with a touch of the spicy heat we requested.
The grilled fish steak chef's special ($18.99) was described on the menu as fresh sea-bass fillet marinated and grilled with a mild coconut-cream sauce and Basmati rice. We were confused when our order taker asked if we preferred tilapia or salmon for the dish, but we choose the later. When the entree arrived, it was thick slices of salmon in a seasoned coconut-based sauce, but no sign of the Basmati rice. We asked and the server said it didn't come with the dish but that he would bring us some anyway. The rice was studded with caraway-like seeds. We also sampled good-tasting naan bread, the flat dough slapped on the side of the tandoor oven to blister and cook. We boxed up most of our entrees, determined to sample some desserts. We'll admit, it was hard to stop eating.
Malai kulfi ($4.99) was a cup of rich Indian ice cream made with thickened milk. Cut into cubes and stacked in a cup, calling it rich didn't really do it justice.
Kheer ($3.99) the Indian version of rice pudding, was described as made with vermicelli noodles cooked in milk then topped with nuts, saffron and dried fruits. We think our server forgot the garnish, delivering the rice pudding in a tiny ceramic container topped with aluminum foil. But the pudding itself? Think the best, creamiest, rice pudding you've ever tasted!
Don't worry if your knowledge of Indian cuisine is limited. The hostess not only is happy to explain any dish in detail but will offer to come back any time a new question arises. The Indian kitchen uses many recognizable ingredients, from chicken and lamb to salmon and fresh vegetables. The cooking methods may differ; for example, many things are cooked in a high-temperature tandoori oven. Some spice mixtures may not be so familiar to Westerners but as far as being too hot, the kitchen is happy to adjust the heat level to the diner's own heat quotient.
Each table had a half-filled salt and pepper shaker on display. We couldn't believe that anyone would have thought the food at Feather needed additional seasoning. While plates can be ordered spicy or mild, there are plenty of other nuances going on, in the form of curry, cumin and coriander spice.
Order a lot of different things from the menu to share with the table. You just might spice up your life for the better at Feather Cafe & Grill.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at email@example.com. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
Feather Cafe & Grill
6041 Black Horse Pike
Egg Harbor Township
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5 to 11 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $3.99 to $10.99, entrees, $11.99 to $19.99
Our bill for two: $66 plus tip
Web site: www.feathercafeandgrill.com