Loneth Soares isn't just the manager of Springfield's only Indian restaurant. She feels somewhat like an ambassador for the country.
Since opening Gateway to India in 2001, she has learned that part of her job is educating new customers about Indian food and answering their many questions. And if they order something they're not pleased with, she's more than willing to serve them another dish rather than have them leave without a proper appreciation of Indian cuisine. Otherwise, "I feel like I'm doing a disservice to the country," she says.
Soares, who co-owns the Chatham Road restaurant with her husband, Charles, says her biggest challenge is just getting people to try Indian food. People who have never eaten it typically ask her three questions: What's Indian food like? Is it spicy? And is it all curry? "The biggest misconception is they think it's all curry," Soares says. "And they don't know they can order it mild, medium or hot. Many spices used in Indian cooking are not hot, such as cloves and cinnamon. 'Spice' does not equal 'hot.'"
In fact, Gateway to India uses about 60 herbs and spices in its array of dishes, including cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, garlic, and bay leaves. It's not an easy cuisine to master, she concedes. In fact, the native of Cambodia says she can relate to new customers who are unfamiliar with the food because she herself had to learn to appreciate the way the food is blended and prepared. "All people need is someone to hold their hand and tell them what the ingredients are," she says.
"It's very tricky to do good Indian food. I myself don't even try it," she says, leaving the cooking to her husband and three other chefs at the restaurant. Charles, a native of India, has 24 years of experience in the restaurant business and uses his own recipes. "It has to come from within," she says. "It's the personal touch. That makes a difference. You have to have a passion for it." Another key to good Indian food is time. "It's the process of slow cooking," she says, which is vital to allow flavors to meld.
The restaurant, which specializes in North and South Indian and Goan cuisine, offers a daily lunch buffet and approximately 100 menu items, including appetizers, soups and vegetarian dishes. The entrées include curry dishes and tandoori specialties. Appetizers include vegetable samosas (cone-shaped pastries stuffed with potatoes and peas) and paneer pakora (homemade cottage cheese dipped in lentil flour and deep-fried). Aloo Papri Chat, known as "street food of Bombay," makes a wonderfully different appetizer. It's a tasty mix of potatoes, garbanzo beans, and yogurt, served cold.
Curry dishes are offered with vegetables, chicken, seafood, and lamb. One of the most popular dishes is chicken tikka masala, a creamy blend of charcoal-roasted chicken cooked in a tomato sauce. Tandoori dishes feature chicken, lamb or seafood marinated with spices like mint, cilantro, ginger, garlic, and yogurt and then roasted slowly in a traditional Indian clay oven. Specials include Portuguese dishes, such as stuffed red snapper.
Ordering a side of bread is a must. It's a nice way to soak up some of the sauce in your dish and temper the spice on your tongue. Good choices are Kashmiri naan, which is stuffed with pine nuts, raisins, cherries, and nuts, and aloo paratha, whole wheat bread stuffed with potatoes.
Desserts include homemade mango ice cream, rice pudding, and a house special known as orange kulfi (ice cream mixed with orange liquor and stuffed in an orange shell). Beverages include fruit and yogurt drinks called lassis, which are a great way to cool your tongue if you indulged in one of the spicier dishes.
The restaurant makes all of its food from scratch, including sauces, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and bread. Charles says, "I love to cook. It makes me happy." He indulges his natural talent for recreating a dish and identifying its ingredients just by tasting it. An example is a pumpkin pudding he recently tasted and then developed his own recipe. In fact, the two large pumpkins now sitting in front of the restaurant will soon be on the menu as pudding after Thanksgiving.
Gateway to India, 3115 Chatham Rd., Springfield. Phone: 217-726-6890. Hours: daily buffet, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sat. brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun. brunch noon-3 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays.
Luigi's plans move
The restaurant options in Rochester are expanding. Pete Praia, owner of Luigi's Restaurant, located at 129 N. John St., plans to open a second location on Route 29 in the spring.
Luigi's, which offers pizza, pasta and salads, has been in business 10 years. The new restaurant will offer an expanded menu, including chicken, veal, and seafood in an Old Italian courtyard setting. A Ferrari Testarossa will be parked inside and customers will be eligible to enter a drawing once a month for a free ride.
Praia, a native of Sicily, has a long family history in the business. His parents owned Frances' Italian Pizza, at the corner of Peoria Road and Sangamon Avenue, for 20 years. His uncle Joe opened Joe's Italian Pizza on Jefferson and now owns Sam's Pizza.
Luigi's Restaurant hours: 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Thu. & Sun.; 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Phone: 217-498-9565. Dine-in and carry-out available.