Some restaurants fairly stand up and scream for analysis, and Vindalho, the latest venture from Lauro Kitchen restaurateur David Machado, falls firmly into this camp. It's a culinary exploration of the spice route pioneered by Portuguese adventurers, or it serves the heirloom dishes of India and South Asia, depending on whether you're reading the menu, the signage or the website. This isn't a complaint per se, but a disclaimer; dinner here comes loaded with a healthy dash of concept.
The restaurant's site coyly describes it as a "neighborhood restaurant and bar," which is true in the sense that the restaurant features a bar, and is situated around the emerging food 'hood of Southeast Clinton Street. What this neglects to convey is the scope and ambition of the project, which recalls memories of boomtown San Francisco in the dot-com era: a cavernous, industrial-style dining room, lit by smart hanging fixtures and occasional flame-ups from the open kitchen. That said, it's cozy and comfortably hip, though high-decibel Indian house music pushes things a little far. As one wag put it, "I'll take my music Indian or gay. Not both."
The bar portion of the equation is small, but you'll get to know it well if you arrive on a weekend night, when the wait for a table can stretch to an hour or more. House cocktails (all $7) tend toward the sweet and fruity; the wine list leans heavily toward German-style whites, a wise choice with spice-heavy cuisine.
And spices are the main attraction here, from the spray of mustard seeds dotting a side dish of crisp, juicy long beans ($5)—a standout—to stewed dishes like the cumin-laced chicken cooked in a sambar ($12), a staple dish of Southern India. The high-quality ingredients and the attention to their handling is apparent, and it makes for startlingly delicious moments, especially tandoor-cooked dishes like a knockout chicken tikka ($14) and gigantic, juicy prawns ($15). But sometimes the catch-all approach ends up feeling touristic, as though having a well-stocked pantry could show us to the heart of the many cuisines featured here. It can't, and those moments of wonder—harking back to the joyful shock we experienced at the first taste of true Southeast Asian food—remind us of what's lacking in other dishes here. House-made mango pickles ($3) are a wan stepchild to the real thing; signature-dish pork vindalho ($14), though delicious, comes off more as New American comfort food than its fiery Goan inspiration.
That said, a restaurant is more than its food, and there are far worse places to see and be seen, especially in the comfort of such an enthusiastic and friendly staff. Look at it this way: If you can't find authentic Asian food here, it's equally hard to find a hip "urban" vibe in any other local Indian restaurant. Judging from the lines at the door, plenty of people don't seem to mind the tradeoff.
Vindalho, 2038 SE Clinton St., 467-4550. Dinner 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. $$ Moderate. No reservations.