Elephant symbolism is widespread in Indian religion and culture, and with apologies to Indian friends for oversimplifying in a major way, elephant associations generally include obstacles — both their placement and removal. The Hindu god Ganesh appears with an elephant head, signifying strength and good luck. (If you have never studied Indian culture, look some up today. It’s fascinating.)
Dancing Elephant, Westbrook’s newest restaurant venture, needs this elephantine strength, good luck and obstacle-free path to compete in a block known for its restaurant transience. I hope Ganesh is kind, because I want Dancing Elephant to stay.
Rather than replete with ornate Hindu statuary, Dancing Elephant’s walls, floors and fixtures are lounge-like in atmosphere. The space is contemporary, with enormous ceilings, track lighting and primary-colored fixtures that double as functional art.
The gleaming wood interior is elegant, and the blue holiday string lights along the raised portion of the window dining space are charming, in a random disco sort of way. The only visible hint of Indian tradition is the collection of small porcelain elephant figurines lining the window sill.
With two flat-screen televisions and a full bar featuring not one but two prominent bottles of Allen’s Coffee Brandy (along with a table card offering Bud Light beer specials), Dancing Elephant appears to know its local clientele. Add the two small children scampering through the open back portion of the space, and the restaurant also has an undeniable sense of kid-friendliness.
The extensive menu is solely Indian fare, though, not bar food (and no kid menu).
Taken separately, each of these elements makes sense: Contemporary lounge, local bar, Indian cuisine, kid-friendly restaurant. Put together, the incongruity unsettled me.
With no website, a cumbersome Yahoo email address, and troubling menu descriptions that include both “steaming” and “chunks,” my marketing heart wanted so badly to ask about the communications plan. Because the owner, Iqubol Hossain, former head chef and manager of Portland’s Passage to India, seems like such a nice, nice person. His staff too. Each time I visited, the smartly dressed server and hostess were welcoming and pleasant.
While incongruity bothers me, if quality supersedes disparate detail, the individual parts matter less then the whole. Too esoteric? Too philosophically Eastern? Try this: When an Indian restaurant opens in Westbrook, it is equal parts hopeful and wistful.
Dancing Elephant seems like a promising thing for the area, and while I love Indian cuisine (as well as the convenience of not needing to park in downtown Portland), the “I love Indian food!” enthusiasm tangles with “But it’s Westbrook” suspicion, and the result is confusion.
So I ordered with trepidation.
And that’s when the magic happened. Ganesh-like, all obstacles were removed to reveal a cup of spicy-sweet chai tea, steeped and lovely, and somehow in the space of wondering where to look and what to focus on, I was served some of the finest Indian food in my history of eating Indian food.
The Chicken Tikka ($8.95 for an appetizer portion) were skewers of yogurt-marinated chicken, onion and green peppers, and I recommend this for any person who might be dipping toes into Indian cuisine for the first time. It’s mild, with no overwhelming curry taste — just tender pieces of chicken in an accessible, savory sauce.
“Makhini” translates, loosely, to buttery. “Dal” is lentils. Dancing Elephant’s Daal Makhini ($10.95) consists of buttery yellow lentils simmered with cumin, garlic, turmeric, ginger and tomato, representing northern Indian cuisine at its finest. The menu lists this dish as a favorite of the Queen of Mumtaz, and I can see why.
Shrimp Do Piazza ($12.95) means “shrimp with onions.” Specifically, “onions twice.” (A lot of onions.) Traditionally, a dopiaza also includes a sour agent — think sour mango, lemon or cranberry — and I could taste the sour in the Dancing Elephant’s version, but I could not identify the source. It is the Indian answer to sweet and sour, and while I could not identify the source, I enjoyed every tangy bite.
I suspect almost all cultures boast some version of a stuffed pastry, deep-fried. If you are new to Indian cuisine, start with Dancing Elephant’s version of samosas.
For $3.95, you get two large turnovers filled with soft potatoes and green peas, fried but in no way saturated. Because samosas arrive in pairs, they offer a terrific palette for chutney.
Dancing Elephant provides the standard three: Brown chutney with dates and tamarind; green chutney with chiles, ginger, mint and coriander leaves; and mango chutney with onions. Each of the chutneys taste delicious when spooned onto a warm samosa.
Dancing Elephant’s Garlic Naan ($3.95) is maybe the best naan in the area — equal parts pillowy and crisp, and a fantastic sop for Shrimp Vindaloo ($12.95). Although many people know this fiery stew as an Indian staple, I am told by a reputable source that it was created in the Portuguese-Indian colony of Goa, and the name comes from two key ingredients — vinho, or wine vinegar, and alhos, which means garlic.
The original Goan version was, apparently, not as spicy, but as India adopted the dish as its own, the seasonings became hotter. By hot, I mean pleasantly spicy with pieces of potato, fresh shrimp and an ample portion of fluffy, steamed basmati rice to temper the heat.
If you are interested in sampling, Dancing Elephant offers lunchtime specials for $7.95 to $8.95. Alternatively, its lunch buffet is Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and costs $9.95 — including a nonalcoholic beverage, which, for this high level of taste and preparation, might be the best deal in town.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”