I recall sometime in 2003 when I first set foot into Grill Kabob in the Kirkman Oaks Shopping Center. The restaurant's straightforward moniker belied the Afghani treasures being forged in its kitchen, but the cuisine proved too exotic, too foreign or too unknown to get any real traction in this city. Patrons, it seemed, expected cuisine more along the lines of the Northern Indian curries so popular in America, so, in a case of give the people what they want, the owner introduced traditional Indian fare to the menu and that was that.
The space changed hands a few times and now, 12 years later, it just happens to be home to – you guessed it – an Indian restaurant. A vegetarian Indian restaurant, in the case of Gopal Ji Sweets, but an Indian restaurant nonetheless. Not that it's a bad thing – heavens no. A bracing spoonful of crackling bhel puri ($3.99) helped me forget the fact that there still aren't any Afghani restaurants in the city, and by the time we polished off hearty potato-and-pea-stuffed samosas ($1.25 each), I was like Kabuli pulao whaa? Indeed, we could've made a meal out of the chandni chowk ka chatka items alone – those savory Old Delhi street-food staples ("chaat") that have sustained a populace for a century and a half – but we had other dishes to sample.
Now, the "Sweets" in the restaurant's name refers to sweetmeats – colorfully candied confections positioned in alluring arrays inside display cases – but it's a misleading moniker. The 17 toothsome options listed on the menu have been reduced to just one: gulab jamun ($1.50 each). It seems not many folks were into sugary ladoo, nutty halwa and fried jalebi, so the sweets were jettisoned. As a kid, I'd be simultaneously enraptured and intimidated by the vivid variety of mithai in every dreamlike shape and texture, and it's a shame there's one less place for me to relive those memories in this city.
That said, some new memories were made on sampling the masala bhindi ($9.99), a dish of okra sautéed with onions, tomatoes and redolent spices that fared equally well with rice as with chapati ($1), a baked whole-wheat flatbread. The precise spicing in the aloo saag ($8.99), a creamy swirl of spinach and potatoes, proved just as notable as the bhindi, though parched and crisp naan ($2.25) was hardly an ideal accompaniment. If bread is of utmost importance to you, consider ordering the chole bhatura ($7.99). The inflated fried breads alone are worth the price, but ripping off a shred and dipping it into the accompanying thick saucy mix of spicy chickpeas is a simple delight. It's one of my personal all-time fave dishes, though it'll fill you up in a hurry. At Gopal Ji Sweets, I suppose that's OK, given the reduction in sweet endings, though we did down a gulab jamun (all right, but not great) and some kulfi faludi ($3.99), a rich ice cream fashioned from pistachios and rose water.
More changes appear to be afoot: In the coming weeks, "Sweets" will be dropped from the restaurant's name, and non-vegetarian Mughlai fare will be introduced to the menu. Judging from the near-empty dining room, they don't seem to have much of a choice. Whether the offerings are too exotic, too foreign or too unknown, it looks like they'll go the way of Grill Kabob, and give the people what they want.