India is home to more than 1.2 billion people, with 28 distinct states, each with its own history of diverse cultural influences. Yet, here in the U.S., we have a single term for the entire country’s cuisine. As in: “Honey, do you feel like Indian food tonight or Greek?”
To be fair, restaurants in the U.S. don’t make it easy to explore India’s food. Much like so-called Chinese restaurants here, Indian ones can have remarkably similar menus. It’s as if a nation with one sixth of the world’s population subsists on nothing more than chicken tikka masala, samosas, and a handful of other dishes.
No one knows for sure how this came to be. Part of the cause is likely imitation. Many early Indian restaurants in the U.S. featured the rich cuisines of Northern India’s regions, particularly Punjab. The success of those restaurants spawned others, and then still others, such that Punjabi cuisine came to dominate Indian restaurants throughout the U.S.
The story of Charanjeet Ghotra, owner of Milan restaurant, is illustrative. A Punjab native, Ghotra came to the U.S. in 1996, at the age of 20, with the American dream in mind. He began working at a Long Island restaurant owned by some Punjabi family friends, who soon sent him to Virginia Beach to manage another restaurant they owned, called Nawab.
After several years at Nawab, Ghotra and co-worker Jaswinder Singh decided it was time to open their own place, hoping to replicate Nawab’s success elsewhere in Virginia. A statewide search led them to Lynchburg, where they opened Milan in 2002. The next year, they brought the concept and menu to Charlottesville, and opened the Milan on Route 29 North. (Pronounced like Bob Dylan’s last name, it is a Hindi word for meeting place, not to be confused with the city in Italy.) Nawab was their model.
“We knew something that was working,” said Ghotra.
Thus, Milan’s menu, like Nawab’s, is filled with popular Punjabi dishes. But, unlike a lot of other Indian restaurants, Milan branches out to cuisines outside the borders of Northern India.
Specialties of both Punjab and other regions were part of a recent feast I enjoyed at Milan with close friends Drs. Bobby and Sandhya Chhabra. The Chhabras grew up eating Indian food, and, naturally, both consider their mothers to be among the best cooks they know. They also happen to love the food at Milan, and their mothers do, too.
“Milan reminds me of my mom’s cooking,” said Bobby Chhabra. “[It] is very nostalgic for me.”
This is high praise. As is the approval of two other experts who joined us at the table, the Chhabras’ children: Vijay, 12, and Vaya 10. Echoing her father, Vaya said that eating at Milan makes her feel like she’s in India.
Testimony to the quality and breadth of Milan’s food is that almost everyone present had a different favorite dish, with several diverging from standard Punjabi fare. Vaya’s choice, for example, was a South Indian dish called Chicken 65, an appetizer of fried chicken nuggets in a spicy red paste that is said to have been created in 1965 by a famous Chennai restaurant.
Vijay was partial to an off-menu item: “lamb chilli fry,” a fiery Indo-Chinese concoction in which soy sauce adds an unexpected twist. Their mother, meanwhile, loves the lasooni gobhi, a garlicky starter of fried cauliflower in a tomato-based sauce. And their father’s go-to dish is lamb vindaloo, the intense takeout standby that he finds “addictive.”
Ghotra’s own personal favorite, the scallop patia—a sweet and sour curry with mangoes and ginger—was a huge hit with our group. Also swoon-worthy was an exotic coastal shrimp curry, a Western Indian dish, as well as Punjabi standards like tandoori meats, dal makhani, and fluffy, charred naan. And, I was thrilled to find that our meal included the one dish I order at Milan more than any other: hara bhara kebab, a spiced vegetable patty of potatoes and spinach, with sweet tamarind chutney for dipping.
To test the breadth of Milan’s appeal, I brought along two of the least sophisticated, Caucasian friends I could find. And, they loved it too. In fact, according to Ghotra, the vast majority of Milan’s regular customers are not from India, as the Indian community in Charlottesville is not significantly large. Among the regulars, the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala is the most popular dish, and understandably so—the chicken tikka masala fiend to whom I am married considers it among the best versions she has had.
Also popular is the daily lunch buffet, a good deal at $8.95 during the week and $9.95 on weekends. But, after my recent meal, I have to say that the best way to eat at Milan is to come at dinnertime with a group of good friends; sit back, relax, and allow the restaurant to create you a feast. As long as they include hara bhara kebab.