Sam Kumar had four restaurants in his native Sydney, Australia, before he found himself heading over the Sunshine Skyway feeling like he was home. He relocated to Florida and opened Gateway to India on Hillview Street in Sarasota five years ago. Unlike a lot of Indian restaurants in the area, the spot was atmospheric and a bit hip, with a lively soundtrack (sometimes Bollywood, sometimes American pop), lavish tapestries draped from the ceiling and moody twinkling chandeliers.
It makes it on to most lists of "best Indian in Sarasota," partly because the restaurant is accommodating of vegetarians, gluten-free-ers and others with restricted diets, and partly because the broad menu is well executed and fairly priced. In the beginning of October, Sam and wife Beeta opened Gateway to India No. 2 in a lovely space on Bay Pines Boulevard that used to house Lanna Thai, which moved to Park Street.
It is cozy and sumptuously decorated, again with the hip soundtrack, and a nearly identical menu to its elder sibling an hour south. At lunchtime, there is a buffet, $10.99 Monday to Saturday, $12.99 on Sunday when the kitchen steps it up a little, offering interesting Indian street foods and some southern Indian specialties. The other six days, you'll usually find five vegetarian curries (one spinach, one mild korma; usually two mild and two a little spicier), one goat dish, chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, some kind of biryani or vegetarian pulao, and a couple of desserts, one hot and one cold. There are pakoras and chutneys and pappadam and naan, all the accoutrements to enliven an already fairly exciting meal.
Ordering straight off the menu, a few things become apparent: The kitchen likes layered flavors and creamy richness, seldom blowing the doors off with spice. The chicken korma ($14.99) is illustrative, the chicken breast chunks simmered in a cashew-sweetened creamy sauce, chicken Madras ($13.99) gets a similar treatment but with a coconut milk-based sauce and more savory spicing. Even the Goan-style lamb vindaloo ($15.99), with its slightly acidic vinegar and red chili flavoring is more nuanced than incendiary.
On a couple of visits, things emanating from the tandoor never disappointed: From a assorted tandoori platter ($19.99) with a couple of tender New Zealand lamb chops, bone-in thigh-drum chicken and swaths of boneless breast meat, and a few fat shrimp; to a variety of breads like the whole wheat paratha stuffed with potato ($2.99) or simple cilantro- and garlic-flecked naan ($2.99). The skewered lamb kabobs ($15.99), elegantly spiced, are also given attentive treatment in the tandoor, the resulting skewers juicy and smoky.
The Kumars are a dynamic presence in the dining room, urging their small staff to deftly attend to empty plates and to-go boxes. At meal's end, they may present you with a gratis gulab jamun ($4.25), among the more perplexing of Indian desserts. Bobbing in a cardamom-scented sugar syrup, the doughnut hole-like ball is actually a fried dumpling of Indian cottage cheese. The house rice pudding ($3.99), studded with nuts and raisins and with a subtle rosewater flavor, may be more accessible, as is the refreshing mango/yogurt lassi ($3.99).
Partly because this restaurant so closely follows the formula of the established one in Sarasota, Gateway to India doesn't feel like a new restaurant. It functions smoothly and already seems to have a loyal following. And while the menu will be very familiar to Indian-food veterans, its accessible approach to the classics will certainly prove an inviting gateway to rookies.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.