Review: East India Company

[updated 9.13. notes/hours]

Downtown Portland is dotted with Indian restaurants and food carts. It has gotten to the point where, when making plans with friends, you have to make sure you all are talking about the same restaurant; otherwise some of your party will invariably end up at the wrong place.  That is what happened to me the first time I went to East India Company.

This restaurant is behind the downtown library, sandwiched into what appears to be a tiny space between an old parking garage and the Dental Building. Look for the signboard on the sidewalk behind the main library.

The inconspicuous entrance misrepresents the interior. Just inside, you are greeted by a long bar with comfortable stools. There are two flat screen televisions, but the sound is muted, so they are unobtrusive. Beyond the bar, the space opens into a large, elegant dining room. White table cloths and candles stand against a backdrop of warm wood floors, earthy pastel colors, and unobtrusive lighting. Overall noise level is low enough so as not to compete with conversation. The room is dominated by a circular glass panel on the ceiling.

Dining Room

Dining Room

Despite the name, the menu at “East” India Company is mostly Northern Indian, with entrée prices ranging from $12 to $18.00. The presentation is much better than the norm for Indian food. Dishes are carefully arranged, and a moment is taken to decorate the plates. Along with the plush atmosphere, linens, candles, and casual elegance, this touch makes the somewhat higher prices seem more fitting.

Unfortunately, whether you are sitting at a table or just waiting for a to-go order, on busy nights the service can be slow and disorganized. There is no podium as you enter; you just stand there and hope to get someone to notice you as they rush past. On busy nights, the service doesn’t get all that much better when you sit down. The waits to order can be long, and the food can come out in a disorganized fashion.

Before they received a wealth of positive reviews, everything was fine, so I’m hoping the service issues will be resolved once the fuss dies down. Until then, I’d suggest going on slower nights.  They desperately need a front of the house manager, someone who stays out of the kitchen to greet patrons as they enter, makes sure everyone is getting service and drinks are being refilled.

The bar selection could be better. There are nine house cocktails, uninspired and not particularly well executed, with four beers on tap, and four by the bottle. The wine selection is about what you’d expect – 11 reds, 8 whites, and three sparkling wines. 12 are available by the glass, though I’ve had a few which seemed to have been open a bit too long. The wine menu lacks vineyard designations and year. The markup is about average.

Meals start with papadam, a thin, brittle, spiced lentil cracker that easily breaks into bite sized pieces. It comes with two chutneys, one a salty, pungent green mint/coriander, and a second, slightly sweet tamarind. They are serviceable, but they don’t compare to the plethora of vibrant versions found across the river at Vindalho.

Samosa Chaat

Samosa Chaat

The appetizer menu consists of six choices. Since the restaurant opened, they have greatly improved.  I like the tandoori murgh salat (murg means “chicken”.) Bright leafy greens form a bed for a pastry cup not unlike a curved tostada shell. A filling of potatoes, fresh tomato, peppers, cauliflower and red onion cascades out of the cup and across your plate. Over the summer it tasted like it just came from the garden. The flavors are complex; smoky with an occasional, unexpected spicy- sweet burst of pineapple on the palate.  Another good option is the papdi chaat – potatoes, garbanzo beans, potatoes and chat on a foundation of little cracker-like wafers. The spice is tempered with a creamy topping of yogurt, tamarind and mint chutney. I really enjoyed this dish.

Samosas originated in Persia, and were introduced to India during the Moghul Empire. Traditionally they are triangular-shaped pastry dough dumplings, usually filled with potatoes and peas (aloo), or meat and paneer (kema). The crust should be light and flaky.  At East India Company, they skip the peas, and the overall effect doesn’t work quite as well; it’s a bit heavy.  Still, the flavors are complex, with a hint of mint and coriander. The crust is fairly thin, but forgettable. Not my favorite dish, but it’s fine.

Seekh Kebab

Seekh Kebab

The kebabs tend to be excellent – worlds better than most restaurants. You can pick from chicken, fish, lamb or cheese versions. It is hard to find kebabs where the meat hasn’t dried out. Here it’s perfect.

The murgh tikka (grilled chicken)  is infused with a wonderful array of spices, kicked up by Kashmiri cayenne. The fish, or muchli ka tikka is flavorful and tender. The prices may seem a bit high, but the portions are big enough to be called an entrée.

One of my favorite dishes is also one of the hottest things I’ve eaten this year:  gosht vindaloo. Gosht means “red meat”, and though the dish is traditionally made with pork, this version is made with moist bites of lamb, potatoes, and onions, and a liberal coating of vindaloo sauce, which is the hottest of all the curries- a mélange of spices, vinegar, tamarind, and herbs, balanced against a slightly sour note from vinegar. I have a Thai friend who tends to put hot sauce on everything, and he whined all the way through the dish. I loved the complex layers of flavor that peaked from behind the heat – garlic, clove, cumin and mustard. The heat varies a bit from night to night, and yes, some days it will set your mouth on fire – get it anyway.

Murg Korma is smooth as butter; tender moist chicken with “cashew nuts, ginger & fenugreek”. The mild beginning belies the complexity beneath. At first I couldn’t taste the cashews, but then noticed the flavor on the finish. The ginger hits you squarely in the face; the fenugreek is a sly one, peeking through now and then. Makhani means “buttery”, so the murg makhani translates to “butter chicken”, one of East India Company’s most popular dishes. Smoky boneless grilled chicken is simmered in tomato-butter curry sauce and served over rice. If you are used to the version found in the average Indian restaurant, this will be a wakeup: it is leagues above most. The sweetness of summer tomatoes balances the curry and gives it a bright taste; the butter gives a silky mouth feel. This is a terrific dish.

Murg Tikka

Murg Tikka

If you are in the mood for lamb, try laziz paslian, chops in “five greens” marinade. Laziz means delicious, and that is a pretty good description for this dish. While the chops are small, the meat is perfect – slightly gamey, moist and smoky. The marinade balances well, without getting in the way of the lamb and is a bit spicy on the finish. I thought the flavors were long and complex; one of the best lamb dishes I’ve had in a while. Lamb biryani is slightly less successful. The description is “extra lean boneless leg of lamb tips”, and that may be the problem. While the meat was a bit dry, I did like the combination of spices. There was a ton of flavors in every mouthful: saffron, nuts, all offset by the sweetness of raisins. It was topped with a quartered hard-boiled egg. This is another dish that has a bit of spice which lasts quite a while.

Of course, Indian food has lots of vegetarian options, and East India Company has a variety of dishes beyond the ubiquitous biryani. The navratan korma or “nine jewels korma” is traditionally made with nine “seasonal” vegetables, but this version never quite makes that lofty count. Still, the creamy sauce of cashews and raisins is quite nice, and the vegetables aren’t overcooked as they are in many buffet-style Indian restaurants, making this quite a nice choice. Another option is aloo gobi, basically a stir-fry of cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, ginger and spices. I’m not a huge fan of cauliflower, so this dish didn’t bowl me over, but that’s just me; it converted a vegetarian friend to Indian food.

Made on premises, the breads are good though once or twice out of many visits the kulcha was a bit past the slight scorch it is supposed to have. I generally order the garlic version with fenugreek greens to accompany my meal, or the onion kulcha with onions, bell peppers and masala spices.

East India Company fills with happy diners during lunch. In the interest of speed, choices are limited, with three different specials available. They all come with a tiny, forgettable salad of chopped vegetables, naan bread, khadi ; a decent yogurt-based stew, and dessert. The Colonel’s Lunch is pretty basic, just the curry of the day with rice and sides. The Viceroy’s Lunch is more substantial:  samosa chaat, choice of three different kebabs, curry of the day, and dessert. Finally there is the East India Co. Lunch. One chooses either pakora, a grilled fish which is moist and tender (muchli ka tikka,) or laziz paslian – lamb chops in 5 greens marinade. Also included is the curry of the day.

Lunches like this are difficult for a restaurant to produce, a rush of people comes all at once, and they have less than an hour to eat and get back to the office. Corners must be cut, and I don’t think the quality at lunchtime is indicative of what you get during dinner. I have a feeling much of the food is made in advance; once you order, it fairly flies from the kitchen. Portions are quite small, but add up; when combined, you’ll probably be inclined to take a nap at your desk. The last time I had lunch here, I found myself telling friends that they shouldn’t be influenced by that meal, but should return for dinner.

A word about the to-go food: I must say it is beautifully presented. It is rare that a chef cares about presentation with something you are taking home, but this one certainly does. Papadam is carefully wrapped in foil; each chutney is included in separate containers, and then wrapped again. Curries and rice are separated, and appetizers are artfully arranged in their containers. Compared to most take out, it is really a nice surprise.

Though I have complaints here and there, overall I’m quite happy with East India Company. Though many people compare it to Vindalho on the east side of Portland, the two restaurants have quite different goals, with the latter’s cuisine ranging wider and being more fusion. For straight Indian food, I think East India Company is the best in Portland, and it has steadily improved since they first opened. While prices are higher than you might expect, so is the quality of the food. The owner and chef obviously care, and I will definitely return.

  • Address: 821 SW 11th Ave, Portland OR. 97205
  • Phone: (503) 227-8815
  • Hours: Mon-Sat. Lunch 11:30-2:00pm, dinner 5pm-9:30pm
  • Happy Hour: 5pm-7pm
  • Websitehttp://eicpdx.com
  • Notes: This restaurant is not wheelchair accessible.

pictures provided upon request by East India Company
East India Co. Grill & Bar on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Alan Cordle says

    Ate here for the first time last night. Overall, I was very impressed. I had one of the vegetarian entrees, along with an Indian beer (Krait?), previously unfamiliar to me. Two of my dining companions had tandoori chicken and one had another of the veggie options. We were all pleased by the meal and had good service.

  2. Jessica Roberts says

    Sounds like it’s in the old Bike Gallery spot. That seems like a tough location – not that many pedestrians or other street activity.

  3. reflexblue says

    I think the service is better earlier in the evening. The paneer is house made and delicious. Also, ginger-infused vodka – yum!

    Thanks for the review.

  4. Lika says

    Indish( on NW 21) is my new favorite place for homecooked Indian food. Being from India and growing up eating healthy and wholesome food, I can vouch for the the authenticity and the quality that this place provides!

  5. Jason Wax says

    Indish is on NW 21st between Everett and Flanders. And I agree with Lika — it’s very good homestyle Indian food. Plus the owners are incredibly nice.

  6. FoodLover says

    I recently tried East India Company, and I would say it is the best Indian food in the entire Northwest area! Unlike Vindalho, which provides only a few entree’s that truly satisfy one’s craving for good Indian food, East India Company is a mixture between homestyle cooking and high-end food, which is what people usually want when they go out for a nice dinner. I disagree with the review – I would say that this restaurant has much more to offer than unoriginal drinks and bad service. The food is not too heavy, and being someone who is used to having the best Indian food when I travel to India every year, that is a characteristic that I appreciate greatly.

    I would give this restaurant 5 stars, and I highly recommend it to everyone!!!

  7. FoodLover says

    O and I would like to add that this restaurant IS in fact wheelchair accessible… There is an entrance through the side.

  8. NYC-PDX says

    I’ve ordered take-out from EIC and had a meal in the restaurant. Seating and service was prompt and both our server and the manager were wonderful. There are no “surprises” in the food — it is straightforward, not like Vindalho, but quality of entrees is excellent nonetheless. We were totally unimpressed with the appetizers and will skip those next time in favor of ordering extra garlic kulcha — great bread, definitely on par with Vindalho.

    Our server admitted to us that not many people like the cabbage that is served as a side with most entrees – when we asked for a small order of palak paneer instead, she and the manager were happy to comply, at no extra charge. Overall, it was a great experience — we will definitely be back.

  9. salmonfly65 says

    I met a friend at EIC today for lunch – first time for me. He recommended it and has been there about a dozen times (both lunch and dinner). He’s more familiar than I in regards to authentic Indian cuisine so I was looking forward to it. Sadly, it was unforgettable. We waited much too long in the foyer before we finally started walking past the bar to the back of the restaurant. The place was not very busy so I was surprised how long it took to get a glass of water (and a refill only after I requested it). I think our first server forgot she hadn’t taken our order.

    As for the food, our papadam was burnt (literally) and the chutneys were alright. The “salad” had too much seasoning for my tastes – thankfully, the portion was small. I tried the samosa chaat, minced lamb, and the chicken curry. Of those dishes, I liked the minced lamb the best. My friend ordered the Viceroy’s Lunch, but they forgot to bring out the dessert. The naan bread was also decent and good for dipping.

    Even with your recommendation that one should not pass judgment on this place based solely upon their lunch, I won’t be headed back for lunch or dinner. Maybe it’s my unfamiliarity with this type of cuisine, but for me it has more to do with the awkward and spotty service.

  10. EJ says

    I think the name of the restaurant refers to the British East India Company, not to the eastern region of India. So it doesn’t seem contradictory that it serves northern Indian food!

    :)

  11. eatingfortwo says

    Just tried this place tonight and we will definitely be back. The food was fantastic and the service was flawless (it was not a busy night). I wished my stomach was bigger so I could have kept eating. I agree this is by far the best Indian food in the area.

  12. sam says

    I have the bitter exp with this restuarant , i have been there couple of times and waited more than 45 mins each time and food is most expensive(almost 1.5 times more than any indian restuarant) and less quantity.

  13. Mansi says

    I would never go back to this place every in my life time. Service suck and apparently the manager has no intention of improving it as he told us before even seating us down that the serivce is going ot be bad and that we can leave if we wish to. So last time we went there, we orderend drinks and food. We finished up the food and the drinks never showed up. So we told the waitor to cancel the drinks as it took to much time. We went there again this thursday and apparently the manager remembered us. But instead of making the experience better this time he told us to leave. Can you beleive that? Talked to my friends Indians and non-Indians and looks like everyone has the same experience. So think 100 times before going there.

  14. reedsar says

    My husband and I went a couple of weeks ago and braved the outside construction to go try it. My husband is from Vancouver BC and has many complaints regarding Indian food in this town. That being said, the service was on par with what I see in his neck of the woods, as was the food. Meaning: it was tasty and the service was expedient and efficient. I loved that the spice hits you a little bit in layers, and getting that level of flavor without being overly spicy for spicy’s sake is refreshing. The pakoras were interesting…I’d never had olives in mine before, but the vindaloo as well as the staff would make me likely to return. I hope they survive the nearby construction.

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