Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Sun. noon-3 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $4-8; entrees, $10-15
Fare: Northern & Southern Indian, plus sweets
Atmosphere: Colorful and casual
Some of you may have noticed a bit of an unlikely trend of late: Sharpsburg. Who'd've thunk this modest town across the Allegheny from the Pittsburgh Zoo would distinguish itself as a dining destination? For over a hundred years, Sharpsburg's main claim to fame has been as the birthplace of H.J. Heinz, but just recently, it's taken on a more contemporary, less ketchup-y culinary character. In addition to a venerable cluster of established restaurants and newer fine-dining venues, Sharpsburg now harbors, as of this spring, Indian cuisine at the aptly named Welcome.
Located in a stuccoed building on Main Street near the center of town, Welcome boasts a large dining room bedecked with glittering pictures of the Taj Mahal. Lighting is dim and the menu is long, but if you put on your reading glasses, you will be tantalized by the sheer variety of choices. Along with the standard curries, masalas and vindaloos, Welcome serves some less-often-seen favorites, such as tangy jalfrezi and Punjabi-style fried fish. It does not distinguish between Northern and Southern dishes, although it features dosas, the large, crepe-like Southern specialty, as a weekend-only treat.
We started by ordering pre-selected assortments of vegetarian and non-vegetarian appetizers, expecting modest plates of a few morsels apiece. Instead we stuffed ourselves on two large platters heaped high with samosas, pakoras, and kebabs (oh my!) on beds of shredded vegetables. Some were dense and only lightly fried, like meatballs, while others consisted of fillings wrapped in a delicate, subtly seasoned deep-fried batter. Careful cross-referencing with the menu was insufficient to identify everything, but it hardly mattered -- every last bite was fritterrific. The range of flavors and textures made for a variety that belied the uniform use of the fryer.
Turning to entrees, Jason was quick to insist on chicken 65, his new favorite from South India. Brief as our experience with this dish has been, Welcome managed to surprise us with a version unlike any we'd encountered before: large chunks of chicken stewed with onions and peppers in a thick, paste-like sauce, as opposed to the dry-rubbed morsels with raw onion that we've had elsewhere. This was less disconcerting than the flavor, which reminded Jason of Chinese sweet and sour. Copious slivers of fresh ginger may have been partially responsible for this impression, but our overall verdict was that this dish was satisfying neither as chicken 65 nor as its own thing.
Angelique ordered chicken makhni, a mild curry in which clay-oven-baked chicken is served in a creamy tomato sauce. Here, Welcome's chicken had the tender, moist, aromatic quality of the tandoor, and the sauce was richly balanced between the astringency of the pureed tomatoes and the sweetness of the cream.
In the mood for lamb, Jason tried it khodai style, in a spicy, thick sauce with peppers and onions. Although the flavor was fierier than expected, it somehow evoked a Western stew, slow-cooked and surprisingly lacking in distinctive Indian flavors.
To go with all of this, we ordered raita -- yogurt with shaved cucumber, tomato and herbs -- and garlic naan, or flatbread. The yogurt, obviously homemade, served as a tangy, creamy, cooling antidote to the peppers that heated the rest of our food. The naan was neither crispy nor soft, the garlic flavor neither particularly sharp nor mellow.
Since sweets are featured in Welcome's name, and since a glass bakery cabinet displaying them is a prominent element of the restaurant's decor, we ordered a small assortment for dessert. It's hard for us to judge them, so different are they from the cakes and cookies we're accustomed to. One was made of pressed shaved carrots; another was garnished with edible silver foil. Other typical ingredients included nuts, coconut, cheese, milk and ghee (clarified butter). All were dense and intensely sweetened with rose water and/or honey. We liked them, but suffice it to say that a little gulab jamun -- milk balls in sweet syrup -- goes a long way.
We can't help but welcome the opening of a new Indian restaurant, an event that seems to herald the broadening of a community's culture. And so, although Welcome is, alone, not quite distinguished enough to draw us to Heinz's hometown, we're delighted to add it to the increasingly bright constellation of dining options in Sharpsburg.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars