Chaat Room

The allure of the unknown awaits you at Preet's Casual Indian Dining.

Nothing like a whiff of mystery to make your food taste better. Because my palate isn't trained to it, Indian food always tastes like an opaque wash of flavors, with a tantalizing snort of something recognizable here and there— coriander, cardamom—to hint that one day I'll be able to guess the precise mix of spices in my curry. I was already prepared to eat and ponder my way down the menu at Preet's Casual Indian Dining. Then the food came, and yet another mystery appeared. What were all those bowls of yogurt for? Each entrée at this Redmond restaurant comes with a few crimson-colored pickled radish spears, basmati rice speckled with whole spices, two tortilla-sized roti, and a silver bowl of tangy homemade yogurt. A little raita for cooling away the hot- pepper sweats I'm familiar with, but the ratio of yogurt to mattar paneer at Preet's was practically one to two. Order three entrées and you end up with enough yogurt to coat a flock of tandoori chickens. Stir in some sugar and, hey, you've got a free glass of lassi. The abundance of yogurt perfectly illustrated how two-year-old Preet's (sister to Punjab Sweets in Kent) is tailoring its food toward Seattle's South Asian community instead of to outsiders, who tend to order only the most familiar of the foreign—chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo—and think of a meal as appetizer, meat-starch-veg, and dessert. Owner Manpreet Dha calls his food "homestyle Punjabi cuisine, the kind you get in small villages in northern India." "Casual Indian dining" doesn't just mean a lack of wine license or tablecloths, though the airy, bright restaurant is attractive in an ad hoc kind of way, with terra cotta floors and buttery walls. It's more a clue to how you should order. Snack, full meal, snack meal? All good. What Dha calls "appetizers," for example, are really chaat, the kind of snacks that you buy from street stalls and nosh on over a cup of sweet, milky tea. Preet's devotes equal menu space to entrées and parothas, stuffed breads served with pickled vegetables and, yes, a bowl of yogurt. Oh, and it's all vegetarian. Preet's chaat goes for the crunch—spinach and onions bound together with chickpea flour in the crispy vegetable pakoray ($4.50); a very good rendition of samosay ($3), pyramid-shaped fried pastries packed with coriander-scented mashed potatoes and peas; a strange papdi chaat ($4), which the menu describes as "Indian nachos"—fried garbanzo chips, onions, chickpeas, and boiled potato chunks drenched in a sweet blend of tomato ketchup and tamarind. The Rice Krispies salad called bhelpuri ($3.75), though, was the real prize. It wasn't Rice Krispies sprinkled on top of greens, mind you, but a mix of puffed rice, fried lentil-flour noodles, onions, and chiles dressed in a sweet-tart cilantro dressing. The psychic disconnect between the salad's elusive, feathery crunch and sharp burn startled me with every bite. The mystery of the parothas is a big part of their appeal: How do the cooks stuff the breads with all that filling and then roll them to the size of plates without tearing the translucent dough exterior? A spinach-cheese parotha ($5.75) didn't have much going on, flavorwise. A tomato, cheese, and onion parotha ($6) did. My favorite, the mooli, or grated daikon ($5.50), mysteriously amplified the intensity of every curry we swiped it through. Like the parothas, the entrées can vary from OK—and when I write "OK," I mean as good as your local curry shop—to wonderful. Pass over the bland palak paneer ($8.75), for example, in favor of the maki ki roti with saag ($9.75), a Punjabi dish I've only seen once before, which perks up the spinach with mustard greens and serves the olive-hued puree with crisp cornmeal flatbreads. The stir-fried aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower, $9) throbs with spices, and the rajmah (kidney beans, $8.50) are as "supple" as the menu promises. And Preet's two dumpling dishes, mulai kofta (ground vegetables, $9.25) and kadhi (chickpea-buttermilk, $8.34) come in gravies whose flavors are as intense as their hues, the first crimson and fervidly spiced, the latter nutty and mild. What makes them taste so distinct? Do you really need to know?

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