In the chill of December, a warm, smoky aroma can quickly turn into cloudy cartoon fingers beckoning me toward the delightful heat of a spicy meal. So as the wascally wabbit in 1944's Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears is lured into the house of the titular bears by the steamy pull of sweet carrot soup, when the door opens on Windsor Street and the curried breath of Gracious Indian hits the wind, I practically glide inside with anticipation.
The restaurant has only two tables, though it seems almost crowded by the glimpse into eternity of two mirrored walls reflecting into one another. A bored- looking cashier stands underneath a fast-food-style lighted menu, smiling wanly as she waits to take our order.
We decide on the butter chicken ($7.99), grilled fish ($9.99) and the vegetable biryani ($9.99), making them all "full meal deals" by adding a mango lassi and dessert to each for another $4. I also order a side of naan ($0.99).
The food portions are huge, pushing against the lids of the tinfoil take-out containers. All of the meals are served with a samosa---a heavy mix of cumin seeds in the potato mash give them a buzz of flavour, but overfrying has made the crackling, oily shells almost inedible. The naan is not the soft, fluffy flatbread we hoped for; it's thin and oily.
The chicken and salmon are both overcooked, while the huge piles of rice are yellowed, likely with turmeric, but woefully under-seasoned. The butter sauce on the chicken is sparse and lacks punch; the salmon's spice rub is so mild that it can't compete with the richness of the fish. The two dishes don't just border on bland, but invade it.
The vegetable biryani has more zip, but a heavy-handed use of cinnamon and cloves leave it sweetly flat. And with no heat present in any of the dishes, the raita seems an unnecessary condiment across the board. The yoghurt is at least a nice touch of freshness, especially with the pop of fresh cilantro on top.
Against the advice of the cashier, who says it hasn't set properly, my dessert is rice pudding, which has a nice sweetness and is dotted with almonds. But it's essentially a bowl of milk, less set than I'd even imagined. I can't eat it. My friends opt for gulab jamun, a fried dough dessert made with milk solids and soaked in a cloying syrup. It tastes both chalky and damp. It also remains uneaten.
We leave disappointed, but taking a page from Goldilocks, I bring a friend back a few days later. (Because if anything can be said for our favourite home-invader, it's that she didn't give up after the first serving.)
This time we order butter chicken and chicken biryani ($9.99). I also take a second look at the rice pudding, hoping for a custard. This server says that the watery consistency is the nature of the dish, so I pass. I later learn that kheer rice pudding is often served runny, and wonder which server was right.
The butter chicken still underwhelms, but has more sauce and spice. The biryani is terrible. Rubbery chicken and the soggy, grey corpses of once-fresh broccoli are buried in a mountain of dull rice. The samosas have again sat in the fryer too long.
My first visit wasn't hot and my second visit left me cold, but you know what? As fast food goes, Gracious Indian offers Halifax some new take-out options that don't involve pepperoni, wontons or cheese curds. And if that's all someone is looking for, then maybe they can find something that's just right. I didn't, but maybe that's because I'm a brunette.