Replete with spices both common and exotic, Indian food at its best can be exciting, eclectic, complex, comforting and, yes, hotter than Steve Slater on a public address system.
For years, one of my favorite places for Indian food in Sacramento was Kaveri Madras Cuisine. That is no longer the case.
New and better choices are one reason. Newcomers must open ready to compete or face a quick demise. Stalwarts must maintain their quality or redouble their efforts to hold on to their customer base.
In Kaveri's case, that has not happened. When I visited recently, I was alarmed by the obvious decline, the lack of attention to detail, the still-clichéd décor, the lethargic service and the mixed results with what had in the past often been exceedingly good food, much of it based on the cuisine of southern India.
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I encountered employees who weren't really into what they were doing. Often, they stood around doing nothing instead of tending to customer needs and heading off problems. This would qualify them to be the CEO of British Petroleum, but we expect a little more at a local restaurant.
As to the food, I tasted some pretty good dishes, and one excellent sambar soup with lentils. I also had food that was not fresh and was overcooked, including the chicken pakora and the kabobs of chicken and boti (lamb).
I tried some meals that were supposed to be alive with flavor but turned out to be too tame and one- dimensional. And I was a bit concerned about Kaveri's reluctance to put meat in meat dishes.
At the once-stellar lunch buffet ($9.99; $13.99 for the dinner version), I noticed tandoori chicken sitting in a puddle of grease. Several of the dishes with sauces sat so long without being stirred that they developed an unsightly skin. For dinner, the three dipping sauces came in cups that seemed to have been topped off after previous customers used them.
I could have just walked away, left Kaveri alone and moved on to the next place on my list. But I am compelled to talk about the restaurant for a couple of reasons.
Kaveri, which opened in 1994, has for years been a destination restaurant. People would drive across town, past many similar restaurants, to dine there. I was one of those people, and gladly so, even if I was occasionally put off by what I will describe, charitably, as the wait staff's lack of effervescence.
Second, there is a lesson here for us all. How did this happen? And how can Kaveri be fixed?
At our table one recent night, we addressed the topic moments after being served an obviously spoiled glass of red wine that would have been useful only for degreasing motorcycle parts or staining antiques. I'm guessing it came from a bottle of merlot that had been open at least a month. What's more, the glass was filled to the very rim, an amateurish thing to do.
In general, the service at Kaveri was subpar by any standard. It's inexcusable when you are asking us to pay hard-earned money for food and hospitality, only to be treated as if we're on the losing end of a family spat.
During one visit, there was no "hello" when we entered. When we sat under a ceiling fan that was, inexplicably, on full blast, we asked to move. The employee obliged without comment. Moments later, I noticed that the fan had been turned off. That's just silly.
At lunch, no one ever stopped by to ask how we were enjoying the food, if we needed anything else or, worse, if we would like anything to drink other than ice water. That is just not trying.
On another evening, when we expressed concern that my chicken vindaloo ($13.95) looked exactly like my friend's chicken korma, the server said they were made from the same sauce, except the korma had yogurt added and the vindaloo had potatoes. That's just incorrect. Moreover, there was a potato sitting on my friend's plate – the friend with the potato-less korma.
That night, the ginger lamb curry ($11.95), looking more like an Italian marinara, was also off in both appearance and flavor, with a sweetness that showed no hint of ginger.
There was no effort by servers to talk about the food or mention specials or ask us how we are doing. When we asked questions, we felt as if we were imposing. In fact, during all three visits, no one ever stopped by our table to check on anything.
At the next table, an employee sprayed a bottle of Windex on the table to clean it, and I could see the mist wafting in the air toward us. That is inappropriate. Spray the cloth before you come out on the floor and wipe the table discreetly.
On another equally dismaying evening, my companion's thali platter arrived and looked much like mine – a traditional tray holding several tin cups of different kinds of food. Many minutes passed, and then a platter of tandoori-prepared meats ($14.95 for the mixed grill) arrived for her. If Dick Cavett were served on a kebab, it wouldn't be this dry.
I sat for a moment and picked at my food, wondering if something more would be coming, since my dish – the Kaveri meat special ($13.95) – was about the same price. Even though this special comes with lamb curry, chicken curry and the creamy deliciousness of chicken makhani, I could find but an ounce or two of meat all together.
I asked our server if my order was correct, and he responded sharply: "Yes." At a real restaurant, where employees actually care, a server would have noticed that something was amiss, asked if everything was OK and, preferably, if I'd actually like some meat with my meat special.
Such a show of concern would have given me a chance to express my disappointment and have given Kaveri a chance to fix it.
Instead, I am left to report my dreary findings, wondering if Kaveri Madras Cuisine plans to be a real restaurant again, if it wants to be part of the newly competitive Sacramento dining scene or, as the evidence suggests, if it plans to rest on its laurels until fans like me catch on to how far it has fallen.
KAVERI MADRAS CUISINE
1148 Fulton Ave., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, 5-9:30 p.m. daily
Full bar? Beer and wine only
Overall:1 1/2 stars (subpar)
Still some good dishes, but too many items show lackluster cooking, skimpy ingredients and flavors out of sync. We'll be on the lookout for worse service, but so far, this is right up there. You know the term "going through the motions"? At Kaveri, that would be a pep talk.
Food: 2 1/2 stars (fair)
Good soup, some nice flavors with the curry dishes, but the cooking has declined significantly since this first became a destination dining spot for us.
Service: 1 star (poor)
Alec Baldwin's character from "Glengarry Glen Ross" needs to pay a visit. Standing around and barely paying attention is not in any customer service manual we know of. "Hello." "Goodbye." "Thank you." Smile. Let's start with the basics.
Ambience: 1 1/2 stars (subpar)
What's to be said about a place that decorates poorly more than a decade after opening, complete with halfhearted attempts at cliché art from the homeland, and never sees the need for an upgrade?
Value: 1 1/2 stars (subpar)
Several dishes had so little meat that we felt the chef was making a statement about cruelty to animals. If you believe being ignored has a monetary value, feel free to increase this by half a star.