Harvest of India is Perfect India Cuisine in a Renovated Atmosphere (4.5 stars)

It’s important to be earnest. The passion of owner Vinay Kumar and manager Ashis Kumar is unmistakable, and they’re so eager to demonstrate the breadth of their menu that they invite me to come to Harvest of India three times. With each visit, it only gets better.

The walls are yellow stucco, and the lighting is not too dark. To me the bright colors clash with the wood carvings, which look out of place and of which one is hung with fake fall-colored leaves. It looks like they spent some money on lighting fixtures but went with their guts instead of hiring an interior designer. (But when I return 2 weeks later, they are renovating, so perhaps I judged too soon.) The restaurant seats 50 people and they have table service and cloth napkins.

Ashis says that the strength of Harvest of India is its food, not the decoration. “We’re a place for food lovers,” he says, and also draws my attention to their low prices. Their entrees are all $11-$15, more or less at the student level, but there’s an inexpensive $7.50 lunch buffet and they’ll soon have their liquor license and be able to serve beer and wine.

Although I’m unable to find an unusual background story to Harvest of India — Vinay has spent 25 years opening restaurants in Boston and this is his latest, opened in late 2010 — since food is their focus, I take a seat and ask Ashis for his recommendations. He suggests a few, and asks me how spicy I want them.

“Definitely spicy!” I say, which earns me a look like Ashis is worried for me.

“Well,” I say, “White Boy spicy, not I’m From the Home Country spicy,” which seems to put him at ease.

First out was Dal Tadka, a vegetarian dish served with rice that is basically lentil stew. Wow! This is the best lentil dish I have ever tasted. It’s served piping hot and it’s a pleasure just to smell it! You can feel your whole body unclench and bloom at the aroma. It’s a soft mush, a blend of tiny pieces that you can explore with your tongue and its hearty goodness goes right to the bottom of each taste.

I can’t help but notice that Vinay and Ashis are discreetly observing me from across the room as I try to eat. Suddenly I become very self-conscious about the bites that I am taking and whether I am giving false body language cues. Peshawari Naan is bread stuffed with nuts and raisins. It’s lively and rich, the nuts soft instead of crunchy, but more like a dessert than a side dish.

The Tandoori Chicken Tikka has fantastic presentation — served steaming on a metal pan! — and the taste was suitable, not too dry, but not interestingly spicy. Instead it was rather salty, and chunks of meat don’t really make a meal, even taken with rice and bread. However, the Chicken Tikka Masala blew my mind. Wow! Its sauce is viscous, more like a paste than a liquid, creamy and spicy without going over the top. It’s got layers of taste so that you get something new in each bite. It was so good that I couldn’t stop eating even after I was full.

Two enthusiastic customers who are heading out stop to introduce themselves to me. They are Colleen Chatterton and John Harberstadt. They’ve eaten at many Indian restuaurants in India itself, in Britain, and in New York. Colleen says, “This is my favorite restaurant in Boston,” and it’s one of John’s two favorites in the Indian category, the other being Annapurna. They like the variety. “You won’t find these authentic dishes elsewhere,” Colleen says, mentioning Garlic Gobhi (cauliflower cooked with fresh garlic and tamarind) and Hyderabadi Mirchi (eggplant and green peppers with sesame seeds, and peanut and coconut sauce). The Tandoori Duck Masala or Lamb Shanks are unique to Harvest of India, too. The menu is packed with options. Colleen and John don’t live nearby, so they aren’t just choosing India Harvest out of convenience, and they were so eager to tell me good things about the food that they lost the cab they called (it honked, waited, then drove away). Apparently, you’ll also find sensational milkshakes here, too.

The next day I return by invitation to try the buffet. It’s all you can eat for $7.50. Food served buffet style (and priced so inexpensively) is bound to be less compelling. So I wasn’t surprised that the Chicken Makhaini had good meat but wasn’t distinctive, with a sauce that had a tomato soup flavor. The Jayapuri Vegetable was soft and smooth: it melts in your mouth. It was solid but not spicy or complex. The Vegetable Samosa was very good, salty and delightful, with the consistency of mashed potatos. As usual with samosas — not just here, but everywhere — I find there’s too much dough compared to the filling.

A bite goes down the wrong windpipe and I feel myself about to cough uncontrollably. I look over to the open kitchen and find that Vinay and Ashis are still noticing me. I do my best to cough in a way that communicates, “I love the food, it’s just that I’m choking, but most likely will not die and do not need the Heimlich Maneuver.”

Overall, the buffet is solid, and I find nothing disappointing, except perhaps the garlic salad, which was already limp at 12:30pm. I tried the garlic naan, which is better for sopping up sauces, and found it soft, but average and (although it was brought out to me, not left in a pile in the buffet) not served hot. The Chana Masala was solid and unusual, a meal made from spice and chickpeas. The fruit salad had just two ingredients that I could taste: apples and black pepper. The combination works surprisingly well.

My favorite is the Madrasi Kofta. Incredible! It’s like a supercharged meatball and sauce, with a delicious mouth feel. That complex taste is actually minced chicken. I hadn’t been expecting a meal of this quality in the buffet.

By now I’ve eaten so much that I can’t even move. So I sit there trying to digest before saying my goodbye. That’s when Ashis comes over and asks if I’d like some rice pudding, the only thing in the buffet I haven’t tried. I think they’ve been monitoring me. Okay, I say, without moving, wondering if maybe he’ll bring it to me. He doesn’t.

So I sit for a while trying not to breathe too deeply, marshalling myself to get to the buffet. Ashis continues to look at me curiously, no doubt wondering why I don’t get up. I get up. I make it to the buffet. I get the pudding. I try a taste.

It’s delicious! Most rice puddings that I’ve had taste like a small mound of Chinese white rice that someone’s added sauce to. The mouth feel is too granular, unlike ice cream, which is smooth. The rice pudding at Harvest of India, which has pistachio and is served chilled, you can tell it’s rice but somehow it has the creamy mouth feel of a powder mix pudding. It’s sweet and I have several bites. I can’t help myself. Soon I can’t move again.

A few weeks ago I reviewed the nearby India Castle, and the manager there was so friendly and sincere that I felt bad for calling the food average. Now I know I was right. Meals at Harvest of India wowed me three times, once of them being a buffet dish, and the low prices make it a destination for everyone. Because of the mismatching decor, I cannot give it a perfect 4 out of 4, but the food there is perfect to my non-Indian taste. I’m so glad that I made the discovery in this out of the way location between Harvard and Central Squares. Trust me, it is worth the trip.

On my way out, Ashis asks if I can bring a printout of my review so that they can hang in the window. He means this sincerely, but it is also the best psych-out that a restauranteur has ever laid on me. Restaurant owners, perk your ears up! Make a sincere face, lead your reviewer to the window, and frame a space with your fingers on the glass. “This is going to be a place of honor for your review,” you say, humbly. “Could you bring us a printout?” How could any journalist resist?

Fortunately, there is no need to resist. I am already in love with Harvest of India.

For more, see Harvest of India.