This is one review that slipped through the cracks. I’ve been coming here so long that I cannot even pinpoint an exact time to reference. Neelam was my introduction to Indian food. It’s the place my parents brought me when I was a young child. It’s the place where I have seen my own tastes evolve. From when I thought chicken tikka and plain naan bread were exotic to trying almost anything on the menu just to see what else is out there. If you’ve read my reviews on here, you will know that I will eat anything at least once. I guess you could say this desire to constantly try new things began at Neelam. For some reason, people have a hesitancy toward Indian food. I feel like I make this plea constantly: why is that so?
Like Bollywood Tadka, Neelam is a place for both novices and experienced eaters of this exotic cuisine alike to enjoy. Yes, there are the tikkas and the breads and dishes more to be enjoyed by American tastes, but there are also more authentic Indian dishes using lamb. I find myself sucked into a vacuum of ordering the same meals over and over again here after many years venturing around the menu. This means I have achieved a level of comfort, and even with all the different cuisines I try, I am still a creature of habit at heart. The chicken tikka masala here is out of this world, as is the makhni (there is so much more flavor to be had in dark meat chicken). The sauces are rich and buttery, with the blend of spices in there coming through to make your mouth alive with vibrancy. Despite being stuck on a loop, I did try the Bhindi Masala (okra) on my last visit several weeks ago, and it was full of earthiness and varied in textures.
I hate to keep comparing Neelam and Bollywood, but they are an integral part of my dining life. Both have some major pros and not many cons. My only complaint with Neelam would be a lack of salt in the appetizers. Pakora dishes could use a sprinkle, while the breads could use a little and maybe some butter as well. Bollywood succeeds on this matter as noted in my review from a few months ago, but they lack slightly in the individuality of main dishes. Some of them look and taste similar. But with Neelam, those differences—the base sauces and spices—are more widely varied. I have always joked to myself that I wish I could have a meal with Bollywood’s appetizers/breads and Neelam’s entrees.
Make no mistake, I am not heavily criticizing Neelam’s appetizers. On the contrary, I am stating that they are good to begin with, but could be even better with some slight adjustments. Not that they need to change, because they end up with a Zagat rating every year. Their shrimp pakora is one of the best I have ever had anywhere. Crispy on the outside, and succulent with tenderness on the interior.
The service here is ultra-pleasant and knowledgeable. One of the servers (the owner’s daughter), I went to high school with. She always has a smile on her face, as does the mother. It is so rare an order is messed up that I do not think I can recall a single instance. Neelam holds such a special place in my heart, not because it served as my essential introduction to this world of culinary flavors, but because they have maintained a steady consistency for the decade-plus I have been visiting. Not once have I ever left dissatisfied. Not once have I ever not thought, “This is some of the best Indian food out there”. For those reasons, they get 5 out of 5 stars from me. I only hope you can try them out.
Neelam Exotic Indian Cuisine is located at 1178 NJ 35 in Middletown, New Jersey.