It's not fair to write about American Gymkhana, really. The upscale Indian restaurant on Orlando's Restaurant Row is brand new, which means it has kinks not yet untangled. I'd never report back so quickly for a full-on print magazine review.
Yet the restaurant invited me, along with possibly every other food writer and blogger in town, to try the place out. I couldn't resist.
My not-official review is mixed: The place has amazing potential.
Here's the premise, according to our waiter, who had never before tasted Indian food "except for chicken tikka, which they don't even have here": The name is a play on British Gymkhana, clubs in the South Asian country during the time that English generals were supping in the country theirs occupied. He says guests with Indian roots get the name's reference but Americans, my words his gist, think the moniker is a challenge to be overcome.
The restaurant has an all-star cast, but not really. It was "conceptualized by," according to the press relase, Rajesh Bhardwaj, whose Modern Indian restaurant Junoon in New York has earned a Michelin star. The chef, Aarthi Sampath, is of Indian descent but told me she hasn't cooked this type of cuisine professionally before. (Her bio indicates otherwise.)
My guest and I were graciously invited to order freely off the menu, within reason. That we did. After a super-nice sommelier guided me to a light and sweet pinot gris that complemented the fare as well as wine could, we dug in. Here are brief reports on some dishes.
The first item we tasted is a sort of amuse bouche, a small flavorful bit gifted by the chef. I don't know what it was, but it was a magnificent starter. It reminded of mango lassi, a yogurt drink, but had spices and maybe herbs blended it. Phenomenal.
I'm usually put off by fritters because they're fried and dull, but these were quite the darlings. The inside is pure vegetable, just crisp enough. That endeared them to me and turned off my vegetable-skeptic dining companion. The sauce, "ginger/galangal," was sweet and pungent. Hit! The oddity: The last fritter had something soft inside, like a creamy cheese. None of the others had that. A mystery.
We had the opposite reaction to this appetizer. I don't know what the name means, but the menu describes it as "paneer/fresno chili/baby eggplant/asparagus." To me, they were unexciting battered and fried vegetables, the pepper fiery hot. My co-eater adored them, reminding me that he's the bigger fan of Indian food and knows best.
We had a mixed reaction to these. The lamb burgers themselves had subtle hints of exotic spices, which was nice. The slider element didn't work though. The bottom was a small soft cracker than just kind of fell away. The top was an onion, which tasted great but wasn't the kind of thing you'd want to stick your fingers on. This should be reconfigured as a knife and fork food.
The entrees were well-made. We were quite pleased. But they were shockingly small. Indian restaurants tend to have petite entrees. That's part of the culture and the wee portion size is no issue in traditional spots. American Gymkhana, however, is a high-end, thoughtfully decorated series of dining rooms with cocktail lounges and private spaces. It needs to Americanize the amounts of entree food served, or at least camouflage the helping sizes by changing the bowls and platters in which they're presented.
That said, the brussels sprouts main dish may have looked like an appetizer, but the flavor was a standout. The walnut-size, cabbage-like rounds had a crispy coating. The menu says they were prepared with green peas, garlic, and pink peppercorn. Whatever the combo, it worked.
Lamb vindaloo is often too spicy for my taste. Here, the bite was tempered with a rich blend of spices. The flavor was terrific. But, this tiny crock of sensual satisfaction costs $22, and guests must order, and pay for, rice separately. That will need to change.
We also sampled two breads: aloo matar paratha, filled with potato, peas, and "green," pictured, and a simple sheermal, described as "enriched saffron kashmiri style."
Once American Gymkhana hits the two-month mark, I'll visit anonymously, sample more, interview the chef, and write a proper review for a print magazine.
Will anyone read it? Not enough people, apparently. The well-meaning, in fact really nice, waiter made a little gaffe. I dined at American Gymkhana on a Friday evening, one of many times the eatery hosted my colleagues and me. Discussing the media invitations, the server confided that the staff was encouraged to be on extra-good behavior two days later. "Three big tables of REALLY important writers are coming on Sunday night," he said. I may have chortled. He rushed in with, "Oh no, oh no, I didn't mean to say that you're not important." It was hilarious. The poor guy (who, for the record, did not know my name since the hostess desk didn't have my reservation). I chuckle every time I recall his stumble.
Give this place a shot, if you're adventurous. It's fun to try Indian flavors presented in new ways, and in a sophisticated club-like dining space at that. It's a pleasure for Orlando to have a team trying to bring our Indian fare to the next level. Once American Gymkhana settles in, it will likely do just that consistently. But bring extra cash for the rice.