By David Minsky
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The envelope, please. And the winner is: the restaurant whose moniker translates to both the national fish of Bengal and a riverside village in Bangladesh! That would be Heelsha, housed in a quaint 45-seater. The interior looks a little like a Spanish or other Old World café, with narrow windows of antique glass spaced at intervals along a curved, pale yellow wall. Satiny saris slung across those windows and tasteful import items arrayed on shelves achieve a subtle Indian look. Wooden wine racks, filled with some three dozen types of savvily selected reds and whites, form the straight edge of the half-moon-shape room, which is accented with bright, warm colors. Birds of an alfresco feather can flock together at a screened-in patio out back that seats 50.
One key difference between Heelsha and Renaisa is that the former landed the latter's kitchen crew, who seem to be doing a much better job here than at their old venue of vindaloo. Some waiters are also Renaisa alumni, and ours was on the ball from the beginning. Shortly after we were seated, he promptly delivered glasses of water, a plate of the crisp lentil-wafer pappadum, and a trio of chutneys: tamarind, red onion, and piquant cilantro-mint. He was quick with recommendations, too, which is helpful in the context of a typically extensive Indian menu. On the other hand, we were clearly being steered toward the safest choices "the most popular," as he put it. I selected one of his picks, chicken tikka, cubes of breast marinated in typically red tandoori fashion and baked in the clay tandoor oven. It tasted more or less like any Indian restaurant's rendition, although fatless meats like chicken breast dry out quickly when cooked in this manner, so the moistness of the poultry was a plus.
1550 NE 164th St.
North Miami, FL 33162
Region: Aventura/North Miami Beach
Renaisa Indian Restaurant, 620 NE 78th St, Miami; 305-758-2929. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Thursday 4:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4:00 to 11:00 p.m. Closed Monday.
We chose the breads ourselves, although in this category you really can't go wrong. Garlic nan and potato-stuffed alu paratha were soft and warm from the tandoor, and puri was just as it should be: a crisp balloon.
A few other tried-and-true Indian dishes were executed with aplomb. Vegetable samosas were cleanly fried, mixed vegetable curry was fresh and vibrant, and lamb biriyani brought succulent squares of braised meat mixed into basmati rice, the latter soaked with cooking juices and a clove-ish mix of aromatic spices.
Less conventional dishes were even better. A Bangladeshi starter, mas bhora, featured five fried fish fritters of grouper deliciously juiced with onions, garlic, and cilantro. Karahi specialties are offered, too, in which meat, poultry, or fish gets quick-cooked in a woklike iron skillet heated by coals. The lamb karahi we sampled was like a fired-up stir-fry, succulent pieces of meat melded with tomato, onion, green pepper, and garlic, and then kicked-up a notch or ten with cumin, coriander, cardamom, and a whole mess of aromatic spices.
Try not to miss the restaurant's namesake fish, a sweet, freshwater, silver-skinned type of shad that goes by the name heelsha, hilsa, or elish. (It is a relative of herring, and so potent a symbol of wealth and fertility that at Indian wedding feasts they dress it up in silk and jewels and paint lipstick on its kisser.) Heelsha flies the hilsa in frozen from India and cooks it up a few different ways. We tried it dopeazee style, roasted and robustly seasoned with onions, ginger, cumin, I'm guessing fenugreek, maybe cinnamon, who knows? That's what I like about Indian food.
There wasn't much to like about Renaisa. To be honest, I was never as enthralled with the place as others seemed to be. The ramshackle, unkempt décor didn't jibe with the midrange pricing, and the food ranged from so-so to very good, but was invariably less than great. Sitting in the "new" Renaisa, I could only stare out past the dusty windowsills, at the black waters rolling by, and lament the good old days of inconsistency. This restaurant has fallen from grace faster than you can say Daunte Culpepper.
The exterior of the place is still dilapidated, and the dining room looks only minimally better than before. The cluttered entrance has been removed, which opens up the space in a welcoming manner, but crooked floors and cheaply paneled walls suggest a rec room in some low-income retirement home that has been hastily dressed for an Indian theme night. Plunky Eastern music plays through a portable cassette player, which lends the sound a tinniness I found suits the tunes quite well. A new, unplugged plasma TV screen hangs on one wall.
Things began with a thud. Make that two thuds, as in a pair of oil-drenched samosas with a vague vegetable mix loosely wrapped in fried dough that was gooey-white raw on the inside. No sooner had we suffered through our first bites when we overheard diners seated at the next table complaining about old, metallic-tasting vegetables. The couple sheepishly explained they weren't the type to make a fuss, but the waitress returned from a chat in the kitchen to concur that the food had a "refrigerator taste," that it "wasn't fresh," and that they wouldn't be charged. The two were seated behind me in a high-backed booth, so I couldn't see which specific dish was being indicted, but because we had ordered vegetable jhalfrazie in curry sauce, I was getting a little nervous.
I was relieved to find the absence of metal or refrigerator flavors in the vegetables. Then again, I had only a bite or two, for the sludgy brown, tomato-saucy, pedestrian mix of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions, peas, water chestnuts (?) and limp celery tasted so awful that the absorption of a little refrigerator odor could have only improved things. The waitress, noting that we didn't eat it, didn't charge us. Which was nice. I think it's safe to say that vegetables weren't turning a big profit for Renaisa this particular evening.
Lamb achar gosht was more rewarding, the meat mixed in a savory, mildly spicy curry sauce speckled with pickles that weren't nearly as hot as Indian pickles usually are (more deli-style than Delhi-style). Basmati rice and paratha bread were passable too. Rice pudding was soupy, service was slack, prices were similar to those of Heelsha meaning entrées between $13 and $22. I think I've made it clear where I'd spend my money.