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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    Groton's excellent Mint Leaf fuses northern Indian cuisine with Nepalese and Chinese touches

    Mint Leaf's Shrimp Biryani (Rick Koster/The Day)
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    As I become increasingly feeble, trying to simplify my life is a top priority. When, for instance, five different organizations remind me via text, Facebook or email that it's time to have the oil changed in my car — and, needless to say, I can't do it myself — there is now the very real possibility that my wife Eileen will look at our credit card statement and say, "Hey, did you just have your oil changed five times?"

    I'm not losing my memory so much as I'm distracted by the world in general.

    In that spirit, it was counterproductive for me to head to Groton's Mint Leaf to try some northern Indian food.

    The meals were superb, and the long, narrow restaurant is very pretty and comfy, particularly given its Long Hill Road strip mall address. As you enter, there's a handsome bar on the right, with several large screens tuned to football games. If all you saw was the tavern area, you'd believe you were in a neighborhood sports bar. On the left are high-backed, comfortable booths, separated from the bar by a handsome, horizontal wood partition. The walls are soothing charcoal and pale green, with plenty of brightly painted thematic murals.

    Halfway back is a low-slung couch and table, like a lounge area for airline frequent flyers, then the rear has stand-alone tables and the tables for the daily lunch buffet. Out back? A covered deck for warm-weather grilling. Throughout our two visits, our hosts and waitstaff were very eager and helpful — and therein came my confusion. Fortunately, it wasn't just me; Eileen and our friend Mary Kate were also puzzled. Here's what I mean:

    In a loosely thematic fashion, what we ate and what's on the menu is northern Indian cuisine. But, as our waiter explained, he and most of the staff are all Nepalese. They come from a region hard to both India and China, and the Mint Leaf food is in fact a fusion of ingredients, spices and melded recipes combining flavors and technique from all three countries.

    Aha! That explains why it was delightfully maddening to try to pinpoint what was going on in the dishes we were eating. At least I'm not completely feeble.

    For example, we had a wonderful batch of Momo Fried Dumplings ($9) as an appetizer. They were small and crisply battered chicken bites and came with a mustard colored dipping sauce. Both the dumplings and the sauce had overlapping tastes that confounded our senses and "northern Indian" expectations. There was a slight citrus overtone, vaguely like a green chili but with a slight peppercorn-y tingle. And there was a happy, lingering-heat component. Turns out the core of the dish is centered in Sichuan seed — not a powder — that comes from China. Our waiter said it's not typically found in Indian cooking, but Mint Leaf is always modulating flavor keys and shifting the spice rack time signatures as though the band Return to Forever had been a Tandoor oven.

    In fact, the appetizer was delicious — and all our meals went that way. The menu offers plenty of meat, fowl and vegetable selections as well as goat and lamb, shrimp and fish. And, in addition to appetizers, salads and soups, there are traditional breads, sides, Biryani rice dishes, kebabs, grilled burgers, and an expansive mix-n-match section where you can choose proteins or veggies and a variety of sauces/curries.

    Here are some highlights:

    • Sabji Manchurian ($8) — Though described as a fritter, this blend of cauliflower, cabbage and carrot, dog-paddling in hot cilantro garlic sauce and topped with diced green onion, is more like a sumptuous stew. We ordered Flurri Pur ($5) and used torn sections of the two large, hot, air-puffed pillows of fried dough for scooping up the goodness. 

    • Shrimp Biryani ($16) — Plenty of medium-sized crustaceans in a mound of gentle and aromatic basmati rice in sauce of fresh (and mysterious) herbs, cardamom, mint, saffron and fried onion. Excellent! The shrimp popped with each bite, and the teasing level of heat and chewy rice were nice counterpoints.

    • Kadai Paneer ($14) — If Eileen ever gets a tattoo, it'll be the word "Paneer." She's a werewolf for these cheese curds, and the Mint Leaf production, in which the cubed cheese was subtly spiced and then simmered in a rich sauce of chunked tomatoes, onions and green peppers, made her vow to move to northern Nepal.

    • Chicken Desi Fare ($14) — On the advice of our waiter, I requested the large, tender cubes of breast meat in a coconut curry that was thick, smooth and blended the coconut flakes with — again of unknown origin — an almost bitter-lemon drizzle. Magnficent.

    We ordered two types of naan to accompany our entrees, the regular ($3) and a fingerling potato version ($4). To be honest, we couldn't tell them apart, but they were tasty and served dutifully in support. It's worth noting that, unless you're a Large Person like myself, the entrees are enough for take-home lunch portions.

    Finally, we heartily recommend the Mint Leaf daily buffet ($8.99), which features several steam trays of entrees as well as salads and desserts. I alone can run the restaurant out of business on the tangy, spice-crusted Chili Chicken alone, and Eileen was overwhelmed with the larger-than-expected variety of veggie choices.

    I'll be back to Mint Leaf as soon as I get the phone call that my oil change is finished.

    Mint Leaf's Paneer Kurchan (Rick Koster/The Day)
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    Mint Leaf

    770 Long Hill Road, Groton

    (860) 326-5596

    Cuisine: Anchored in the northern Indian tradition but with clever and deliciously unexpected Nepalese and Chinese overtones.

    Atmosphere: Large, relaxed spot in a Groton strip center — with a sports bar component, a luncheon buffet section, and a lovely dinner area perfectly suitable for a nice evening out or just a casual meal.

    Service: Instantly eager and helpful; they helped out with some of the spice mysteries that were baffling us.

    Prices: Very moderate

    Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., buffet hours 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri.

    Reservations: Maybe for large parties

    Handicap access: Large and roomy floor space and easy entrance access

    Credit cards: All major

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