Tucked in the little strip mall-type building across from the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Martinsburg is a humble little restaurant that puts out great Indian food. East India House opened last October and is operated by chef/ owner Y.S. Rawat.
We can't mince words that it is not fancy or even pretty, but the welcome is genuine, the place is clean, and the food is excellent. One dines here for great Indian food not to critique decor and ambiance. We arrived for a late lunch and tables were still half full as the buffet is quite popular. We noted two Indian families dining there who were not connected to the restaurant, and we took that as a good sign. East India House's following has spread by word of mouth.
Chef Rawat is a third-generation chef who has traveled the world including South Africa, London, Bahrain, Moscow, and many American cities. His cooking philosophy includes the belief that good food is not forced, it comes together.
A good Indian meal starts with Naan bread. Naan is a flatbread that might resemble a blistered pita at first glance. Cooked in a commercial steel version of a clay tandoor, a cylindrical oven, and the wet dough is stuck to the side so it is heated two ways--from the fire in the center of the drum on one side and the heat of the surface on the other.
The leavened bread tastes best when warm and brushed with ghee/ butter. East India House offers a cheese version and an herbed garlic version. Fresh, warm, and soft from the tandoor, this Naan is nothing like the expensive and relatively tough Naan that comes in packets at the grocery store. Naan can be torn apart and eaten alone, used as a scoop for food, used to soak up sauces, and folded and stuffed. Puri, a whole wheat flour, fried bread was also noted on the buffet.
We noticed that all the items on the buffet were not on the menu so the chef obviously likes to keep the buffet new and different so regular patrons are treated to new tastes. One particular item not on the regular menu that we all loved was the corn fritter. The fritter incorporates corn, onion, and spinach and had a hint of ginger and cumin. We were surprised to learn that flour was made from ground chickpeas--something called besan.
One of my personal favorites is chicken korma--a dish with diced chicken and vegetables such as peas, potatoes and carrots in a tomato-based yogurt sauce. The sauce is likely seasoned with tumeric and garam masala.
Spices, and sometimes the method of cooking, are what differentiates Indian cooking from other cuisines. Since the spices are so important, the handling of the spices is key so I specifically inquired, "Are the spices store bought?" Happily, the answer is no, the spices are sourced whole and then ground and roasted by the chef to preserve the ultimate punch of true flavor.
Sometimes the Unknown Eater is called upon to eat things that are, um, unknown. In this case, it was goat curry. Other than the thought of what I was eating, there was no objection to the taste or texture. Goat meat falls somewhere between beef and lamb--a mildtasting red meat. Goat is somewhat of a delicacy because of the long preparation which often includes soaking and a slow cooking time. East India House uses a tomato onion curry for its goat dish.
Another surprising dish was the chicken chili which is nothing like my own white bean chicken chili. Instead, this dish tasted distinctly like Chinese food without the heavy, salty pucker. So another question to the server, "Why is this on the buffet?" "Because the dish is in the Indo-China tradition," she responded. Well, there you go.
Tofu Tikka Masala, the vegan version of chicken Tikka Masala, graced the buffet as did a delicious chick peas and zucchini dish and a fabulous selection called Cuban potatoes. Those items plus the Naan bread would make a sumptuous meal for a vegan. I didn't ask what made the potatoes Cuban, but I could discern that they were pan roasted with tomatoes, cumin, garlic and ginger-- quite good.
Although the menu is based on Anglo-Indian tastes, the food is true to tradition. East India House is also true to its claim of health-conscious preparations using very little butter or oil and offering a wide selection of vegan options. Whether you are a lover or liker of Indian cuisine, I'm certain that East India House's authentic preparations and tastes will satisfy your cravings. Indian food has a strong, distinct flavor and is not for everyone, but it is really not that hot, and some dishes don't have any heat. If you have the slightest interest in expanding your palate, then East India House is an excellent introduction to a taste of India.