By Alan Bennett, Samuel Shepherd and Anthony Panciocco
For The Maine Campus
It seemed to be a lonely night in the Bahaar Pakistani restaurant, located at 23 Hammond St. in Bangor. As we walked in, the family that ran the business was enjoying dinner at a table in the back corner, a testament to the restaurant’s atmosphere. Adorned with traditional Pakistani art, gold trim and decor and stylized with jars of various spices, Bahaar is as true to its homeland roots as its owners.
For the table, we ordered a skewer of beef tikka (small meatballs cooked in a clay oven) and aloo pakora, which are essentially crispy potato pancakes. The consensus of the appetizers was positive, as we scarfed down our small basket. The beef tikka managed to stay tender despite having a significant char. Both appetizers were plated in one basket and served with two sauces: one a spicy tomato chutney, and the other a cool, creamy yogurt sauce with fresh herbs. The aloo pakora were crunchy and were well complemented by both the tomato and yogurt-based sauces, and the yogurt sauce was additionally tasty with spicy beef.
The server also said that, on Saturdays, people travel hundreds of miles to eat at Bahaar. He claimed that Bahaar was the only Pakistani restaurant north of Connecticut. I found the alleged popularity puzzling because in the 90 minutes we were in the restaurant, no one else came in to dine. This made our experience all the more intimate and led our server to engage in a lot of conversation. This is where our experience became about more than food.
Despite the three of us venturing into a new country’s cuisine, the most fascinating part of the Bahaar’s experience was speaking with the waiter. While serving us water, he spent a few minutes speaking to us about Zagg’s iPhone screen protectors. He says they’re the best.
The man was also very intuitive, sensing that we were having trouble deciding what to order. When we ordered chapati bread, he quickly corrected us to naan bread.
“If I’m spending money on bread,” he said as he walked away, “I’m ordering naan.”
While this would have annoyed us at an Applebee’s, it was welcome at a restaurant that is unfamiliar with a large, whirling menu.
The server sparked up a conversation about Pakistan, where we grew up. He said that he rarely goes back because of all of the tension. He spoke of the recent bombing in a recreational park in Lahore, Pakistan’s capital.
He spoke to us softly, except for when he was forcefully ordering us dishes. He had some surprising, to us, comments about being “randomly” selected for airport security checks. He said that he didn’t mind being checked, because “they don’t know” who could be a terrorist. It was at once both a humbling and insightful experience.
The lamb vindaloo, served with basmati rice abundant, was a little bland, but it’s probably the patron’s own fault — spicy food hurts our news editor, and his philosophy on food is that my food should not leave him in physical pain. The lamb was ordered as a three on the one-to-ten spicy scale. The server said it could go to a seven, as it was a cream-based dish, but his advice was neglected.
Our news editor would like to offer the following on the topic of basmati rice: “I believe it to be an immaculate vessel for Indian and Pakistani. As I eat my way through the border from India into Pakistan, I find myself enamored with the long-grain rice. It’s fragrant, holds up well when soaked in sauces and compliments every single meat I’ve paired it with. I want to be buried in a casket filled with basmati rice. I’ll make the casket out of naan bread.”
On the naan, Bahaar’s is impeccable. Tender and chewy on the inside with a crisp, slightly oily and salty exterior, it disappeared in seconds.
The bowl of vindaloo had an inviting aroma, with hints of ginger hidden in the broth. There were a small handful of tender lamb chunks bathing in it as well, and there could have been more, considering the amount of both broth and rice to accompany it. Some members of our party did not enjoy the lamb for, despite its tender texture, they couldn’t get past its gamey flavor.
An order of beef biryani arrived at the table perfectly sculpted and as tall as the best sandcastle you’ve ever seen. A dish of seasoned rice, vegetables and seared beef meatballs, it was a veritable citadel of flavor waiting to be invaded. The meatballs were dispersed throughout the dish, often popping up seemingly at random, but to much delight. The rice was seasoned to perfection, with bright flavors of turmeric, cumin and curry and just enough heat to provide complexity. Contrasted with the perfectly fatty beef within, the biryani was hearty, balanced and delicious.
A side sauce of rich broth encompassing brown lentils, carrots and onions wasn’t quite saucy enough to coat the biryani, but the sauces provided with our tikka appetizer were perfect complements. Specially, the yogurt sauce soothed the heat and enrichened the lot. An order of chicken with garlic was equally as palatable, cooked well and to expectation (the spice was ordered at a level four).
It’s no surprise Bahaar has been a staple of downtown Bangor for 24 years. In a city just now experiencing an uprising of restaurants, Bahaar has consistently provided residents and tourists alike with unique dining experience, both in terms of food and overall humility. Because our waiter commented this is the only fine dining Pakistani restaurant in the area, it is expected that such an establishment not only maintain good, loyal customers, but quality food and service, both of which you’ll find at Bahaar.