It's hard to believe that the restaurant-rich, old Arlington/Grandview area has gone so long without an Indian restaurant in its midst. So when Aab (it means water) India Restaurant announced it was moving into the former Thom's on Grandview spot, it knew it had a leg up by being the only curry game in town. And for that, this slow-to-open, brand-newbie with a strong pedigree (Cincinnati's beloved Ambar) fills an obvious void.
Well, after a few visits, I would generalize the Aab experience by saying that its many gravy-heavy preparations ranged from OK to quite good. As for its well-intentioned service, let's just say there's plenty of room for improvement - but, of course, it is very early in the game.
Looking around the usually crowded (thus far) Aab, I realized that its protracted opening-day delays were not due to a scenic overhaul. Because save for a few Indian-appropriate artworks and knickknacks, the place is nearly identical-looking to its predecessor. That means a handsome, upscale feel derived from shiny burnt orange curtains, pale green paint, a floral-designed brownish carpet and a fairly nice bar.
Gazing at the menus (Aab doesn't have a buffet), I was mildly surprised by the well-above-average (for its genre), nice-priced wine list as well as the hard-to-digest number of edibles available (over 100!). Fortunately, Aab's cuisine was easier to swallow than that overabundant food document.
Chaat is a popular Indian street treat, and I wish it popped up more often on local menus. Aab's Papadi Chaat ($5.50) was a pretty fine effort. As should be the case, it's a big ol' mess of practically every condiment in the house plus a relatively exotic, eggy-tasting spice mix (chaat masala) spilled onto crackery snacks, chickpeas and Mexican salsa-like add-ons. The result was a piled-high small appetizer plate of crunchy, hearty, sweet, tangy and spicy fun.
Entree-wise, I'd say Aab's mostly Northern Indian-style curry offerings - which usually arrived with good and fluffy basmati rice - were more about the sauce than the solid side of things. But when that gravy was great, man, it hit the spot.
And it triggered my thought that as long as the food is good enough, this much-anticipated Indian eatery might have a chance to succeed in a location where other worthy restaurants haven't.
Because Aab's currently seriously flawed and confused service - which exhibits little communication between waitstaff and kitchen - can be mended, but delivering wholly unacceptable food right out of the gate might have been tragic. Here's a quick look at some of the entrees I tried.
Chicken Tandoori ($12 for a half bird): A tender, juicy and quite successful rendition of the familiar, high-heat-seared, skinless red-tinted meat
Lamb Curry ($12): Tender cubes of stewy lamb in a thick and heavy, dark and interesting sauce.
Matar Paneer ($10): Sweet baby peas and fresh Indian cheese cubes in a hard-to-get-through, dairy-deluged, cream-swamped sauce.
Aab India Special ($16): Easily the best value here, it included the above three items along with some crowd-pleasing battered and fried appetizers, naan, a nice raita, dal (which never arrived), plus rice and gulab jamen for dessert. Note: this was served thali-style (in a compartmentalized silver tray) but several times I had to ask for a few of the dinner's components - some of which eventually showed up.
Chicken Vindaloo ($11.50): An excellent version of the perennial favorite. Potato chunks and tender chicken cubes (but not a lot of them) were drenched in a rich, bright and eye-poppingly spicy tomato curry shot through with a rousing splash of vinegar.
Special Chicken Tikka Masala ($12.50): Chicken breast pieces were swimming in another potent and exciting curry sauce (this one oniony and green peppery), marginally marred by a too-heavy reliance on heavy cream.
Shrimp Bhuna ($13.50): Long-cooked onions and hints of ginger and garlic brought powerful and vibrant flavors to decent shrimp. Recommended.