The gray season has begun. Those dark skies and blustery storms make an evening out seem less appetizing. It's time to stay in the house -- better yet, to stay in bed, and catch up on movies and devour trashy novels.
Still, despite the deluge one recent Saturday night, I was tempted to throw on some clothes and venture out to eat. Dinners of sesame chicken and pizza had lost their charm. It was spicy Indian cuisine I craved, but the idea of going out to pick it up made me want to crawl deeper under the covers. Surely some place on the Beach could bring it to me. While searching through a stack of menus and month-old magazines, I unearthed a Teledine brochure advertising a delivery service that represents 30 South Beach restaurants.
My options were immediately expanded from mundane to mondo.
In addition to the usual choices, I could opt for Mexican, Haitian, Argentine, Moroccan, Spanish, Japanese, Thai, Cuban, or good old-fashioned American. For $3.50 (certainly less than we would have spent on valet parking on a Saturday night) we could have whatever we liked within the hour. We liked Indian. While I looked over our choices from Shiva, the Beach's only Indian restaurant, my neighbor arrived with drinks and a video. But had we wanted them to, Teledine would have picked up liquor, beer, wine, or even random extras like a newspaper or a pint of dulce de leche for an extra two dollars.
One problem with ordering through the delivery service: The operator usually can't answer questions about the menus, which in this case are all faithfully reproduced in the service's flimsy pamphlet. They are, however, willing to call the restaurant to find out whatever details you might need.
Luckily I know Shiva's menu well. I've been a fan of Raghu Raturi's food since 1995, when he used to run the now-defunct New Delhi restaurant on 117th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. I was thrilled when he moved south a few years ago. He relocated to a funky storefront off Washington Avenue and changed the name of his restaurant to Nirvana, a decision which caused him some legal wrangling. It seems a New York eatery of the same name objected to his use of the heavenly moniker and forced him to change it earlier this year. So now the dark and elegant little spot is called Shiva, after the one of the chief Hindu gods, the destroyer and restorer of worlds.
Despite the name change, the menu is essentially the same. Raturi, a strict vegetarian, specializes in traditional southern and northern nonmeat dishes. He also makes delicious chicken, seafood, and lamb meals, including kebabs, biryanis, vindaloos, and a variety of curries. There are several fried specialties as well, such as fritters and samosas, which I don't recommend because the oil used for deep frying tends to be extremely heavy and difficult to digest.
I ordered enough food to hold us through a cloistered weekend if it came to that. And exactly one hour and three minutes after I called Teledine, the driver arrived with two large plastic grocery bags of hot food. We spread it out picnic-style on the bed, popped in the video, and opened the stack of cardboard containers.
An Anglo-Indian specialty, the mulligatawny soup ($3.00) or "pepper water," was the color of a fresh calabaza or whipped egg yolks and was tinged with a mild blend of spices, including pepper, turmeric, and ginger. The smooth lentil soup was perfect for the blustery evening. The whole-wheat flatbread or roti ($2.25) unfortunately didn't travel well. Although wrapped in foil, the toasted, platter-size disc was chewy and cold by the time it reached us. Still, coated in a fine layer of ghee, it was tasty. When wrapped around chunks of chicken tikka tandoor ($11.95), a kind of Punjabi shish kebab smothered in caramelized onions and peppers, it was especially good. The flaming-orange chicken pieces were perfectly moist with a subtle taste of yogurt and cilantro. A side of sauteed cabbage and cumin seeds with turmeric was a crunchy contrast to the tender meat.
Like all entrees it was served with a generous side of pulao (a basmati rice pilaf seasoned with clove and cinnamon). Two typical Indian condiments also accompany most main dishes: a green coriander chutney and a sort of tomato and onion pickle. The coriander chutney, though thin and watery, goes well on the rice or with the chicken. I find the tomato blend too oily and sweet to be much use on any of the already finely flavored dishes.
The fish curry ($12.95), a southern specialty, was made with a mild salmon. Large cubes were steeped with slices of green pepper in a particularly flavorful broth seasoned with masala, a spice blend that includes cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The soupy, yellow sauce was best drenching a mound of the aromatic long-grain rice.
Our vegetarian main course was saag paneer ($8.50), the Indian version of creamed spinach. There are ten enticing nonmeat options, including aloo gobi (stewed cauliflower and potatoes), chana masala (chickpeas in spicy sauce), baigan bharta (roasted and mashed eggplant), Navrattan curry (vegetables in a creamy curry sauce), and dal masala (a highly seasoned lentil stew). The puree was loaded with large chunks of tofulike cheese and accented with smaller bits of tomato, onion, garlic, and coriander. Although marred by a slightly metallic sourness, the creamy dish was rich and satisfying.