The menu makes the claim that Balti is a cooking style of the North West Frontier of Pakistan. There seem to be at least two schools of thought on the origins of Balti cooking, however. One claims that it originated in Baltistan, the northernmost part of Kashmir. The competing theory contends that the name of the cooking style derives from the word "Balti," which means "bucket" in Urdu, and roughly describes the two handled wok-like vessel used in its cooking. The "bucket" theory proponents point out that most of the population of Baltistan is Buddhist and vegetarian, and Balti dishes are primarily made from meat, lending credibility to their argument. There is a third explanation that claims "Balti" is a bad word that was used to insult unsuspecting British diners, but we won't go there.Balti is now enjoyed, with good reason, throughout Pakistan and India, and is also very popular in Britain (there are sections of Birmingham nicknamed "the Balti Belt.") At the heart of it is a cast-iron pot, originally also called the Balti. The Balti cooking vessel is now generally made of copper with a steel liner, and called the karahi or karai. A Balti is usually both cooked in the karahi, and served at the table in it, as was the case at Ambassador 21. Meat and vegetables are stir-fried along with a sauce made from aromatic herbs and spices.An incentive to ordering a Balti is that, like a stir-fry, it must be prepared fresh to order, unlike some Indian dishes that can be prepared in advance and reheated. Therefore, Ambassador 21 asks that you allow 20 minutes preparation time for Balti orders. We accidentally tried murghi Balti (chicken). It was accidental because Balti gosht (leg of lamb) was what we ordered, but without explanation or apology, murghi was what we were served. At any rate, the murgh was moist, flavorful, deliciously seasoned and worth the wait. We accompanied it with Peshwari Naan, a North West Frontier riff on the usual tandoori bread, this version stuffed with raisins, coconut and nuts. We began our meal with an assortment of appetizers, giving the kitchen extra time to prepare our Balti. The vegetable platter, consisting of assorted pakoras (battered, fried vegetables) samosa (potato- and vegetable-filled pastry) and vegetable roll was okay, if not memorable. The Seekh kebab (seasoned ground lamb) was tasty. The standout of our appetizers was a shrimp dish called Jinga Bhagarella, consisting of shrimp sauteed in garlic mustard and flavored with Indian curry leaves and dry chilies. The spice combination was irresistible, and the heat was well within the tolerable range.In addition to the Balti, we selected two vegetable entrees. Malai kofta, described as "vegetable balls cooked in almond sauce," was sinfully rich and delicious. Our previous experience with this dish was limited to Indian buffets, and this version was noticeably superior to any other I had sampled before. The spices harmonized perfectly without losing their assertiveness.Our other vegetable entree was Sarson Ka Saag - green mustard leaves with spinach, sauteed onions, garlic and ginger. This was a nicely done green (tarkari) dish that certainly didn't hold back on the garlic and ginger. Shared among several diners, it provides balance to the more protein- or starch-heavy dishes.We tried two desserts. Kheer royal is the Indo-Pak version of rice pudding. Ambassador's was not particularly distinguished. Our other dessert, Falooda Kulfi, was much more exciting. Kulfi is Indian ice cream, very rich and creamy, with hints of spices. The falooda part was a new one on me. The kulfi is topped with a rosewater syrup which contains "falooda" (psyllium, the stuff they use to make Metamucil). It is a rewardingly sweet and refreshing dessert with a complexity of textures. Don't worry, it doesn't taste or act like Metamucil.The decor at Ambassador 21 is festively Moghul with all the trappings. Drinking glasses are of hammered copper. You can choose to be seated at a regular table, or go native on cushions around a low table. The service is more problematic. On the night we were there, there was a large private party in progress upstairs which seemed to test the capacity of the kitchen, resulting in annoyingly slow, disorganized service for other diners. Hopefully, this is the exception rather than the rule.The Bottom LineAmbassador 21 serves a wide range of interesting dishes in an attractive South Asian ambiance. Make sure to try one of the Balti dishes with some tandoori bread. No alcohol is served, but if you consider your meal incomplete without it, you may bring your own. The food is spicy, but not painfully so, and can be adjusted according to preference
©2004 Community News Group
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