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There are three sections to the 145-seat Ishq (pronounced ish): a row of tables lined up on the sidewalk of Ocean Drive, a thinly foliated rectangular outdoor courtyard that serves as dining area and link between street and recessed restaurant, and the interior, consisting of a bar inlaid with semiprecious stones, three steps up from which is a 14-seat mother-of-pearl communal table facing a glassed-in open kitchen. The space is flushed in golds, purples, crystals, saris, carved marble slabs, and such. Still, it's pretty small. What happens during those out-of-the-blue rainstorms, when the sky suddenly shoots down sheets of water as if somebody upstairs just twisted a giant faucet knob hard left? Sure the tables are under canvas umbrellas, but they can protect only so much — and squeezing 131 extra diners inside would seem to be a challenging proposition. Does management replace the poured-upon pooris? We'd eventually get the chance to find out, but our initial visit brought the sort of comfortably breezy weather that couples dining alfresco in the movies inevitably enjoy.
Co-owners Sham and Kavita Kamlani's preopening press release promised the inclusion of "less traditional" items such as Bombay baby-back ribs and Portobello "naanini" sandwiches, but fortunately such oddities are few and far between. The menu of "Bombay street fare" (the Kamlanis' native city, now Mumbai), crafted by Executive Chef Kavita with consultation from Neela Paniz (owner of The Bombay Café in Santa Monica), is firmly footed in tikkis, tikkas, and tandoori.
A tray of chutney, raita, pickles, and crisp lentil wafers (chapati) is commonly complimentary in New York's Indian restaurants, but down here a token charge usually applies. Apparently the price of a token must have gone up, for at Ishq, each component costs $2.95. That's high, considering the hotly pickled mango, zucchini, and artichoke slices constituted less than a quarter cup of food. They were lip-smackingly good, though, and in keeping with tradition were soused in seasoned oil, not vinegar.
Starters brought mixed results. On the plus side were skewer-less turkey "kebabs," four minifootballs of fried, minced, spiced moist meat; and samosas, two tasty tetrahedrons of crisp pastry puffed with either cumin-imbued crab and baby corn mixture, or the more traditional potato (here with carrots and green beans). Puréed spuds formed the base for a fried trio of silver-dollar-size breaded potato pancakes (tikkis), but they offered little flavor beyond a cursory inflection of cumin and salt. Both samosas and tikkis get pooled in sweet/tart tamarind sauce and piquant green cilantro-mint sauce.
Bhindi is customarily a dish of fried okra sautéed with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Ishq's way of preparing the vegetable (one becoming increasingly popular in India) is to deep-fry a stack of them, toss with spices, and serve like potato sticks. This dish would make an apt bar snack to accompany beer, but it's sure to disappoint anyone expecting a plate of okralike food.
If you do choose the brew route, imports include Kingfisher, Taj Mahal, and India's best-selling lager, Haywards 5000 (yes, that is a strange name for a beer). The full-service bar concocts inventive cocktails such as the Lakshmana, vodka infused in-house with chai tea and pomegranate and mango juices. A bit too esoteric? Consider creating your own customized sangria from three flavored brandies (apricot, peach, ginger), three wines (red, white, sparkling), and three fruit juices (mango, orange, passion fruit). A 14-ounce pitcher (about one and a half rocks glasses) costs $11, but better deals abound if you show up any day between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. for the "very happy happy hour."
The staff here always appears to be very happy happy (in a sober way). The word ishq translates to "love," and workers are not only extremely congenial but also sincere and effective in attempting to make each person's dining experience run smoothly. They succeeded, too, the only hiccups being repeated disparities between the degree of spiciness requested and received — probably the kitchen crew's fault. On one occasion, our waiter described the food in general as being mild or medium in heat, "never hot unless you ask for it that way." We didn't, yet a side vegetable of hariyali ("greenery") — spinach, Swiss chard, and arugula sautéed with garlic, cumin, and chili — was searing enough to bring tears. It was returned and replaced soon afterward with a milder version that was evidently rushed to us right from the pan: more sizzling, more garlicky than the original: a great plate of greens.
On a subsequent trip, we ordered a "spicy" rendition of Punjabi chane, garbanzo beans bathed in yet more cumin (as was a dish of lentil dal), along with ginger, coriander, tamarind, and chili. Yet it emitted only a modicum of heat, the same piquancy as a main course of chicken tikka masala that was supposed to be "medium spicy." The pieces of chicken breast were tender, though, with a cream-of-tomato base that conjured a can of Campbell's — with a kick. This is fitting: Legend has it that this dish resulted from British colonialists insisting upon gravy atop their chicken tikka, and an Indian chef responding with a sauce created by spicing up Campbell's tomato soup.
There are two tandoors in the kitchen. The walls of one are used to bake nan breads, which come "naked" or padded with various fillings — wonderful either way. The other tandoor roasts the rest, including lamb, chicken, and shrimp, at up to 800 degrees. A taste of all three is offered in a sampler: Pieces of chicken breast cooked in the tandoor were moist and heartily charred, as was a drumstick in a marinade of mustard oil and fenugreek. A pair of juicy shrimp was downright succulent, but mushy gray cubes of lamb were awful. Rice really should be included with this $24.95 meal, but it isn't; a bowl of bland basmati costs $3.95.
The spices of Goa are among India's most assertive, usually a curry-ish blend of coconut, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and hot chili peppers. So it was disappointing that a fresh fillet of Goan snapper in curried coconut sauce, though gratifying, was so tamely seasoned it, too, could have originated with Campbell's soup. Ishq's food in general is tamped down (perhaps for Ocean Drive tourists), and the fragrance of spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and star anise is barely noticeable.
Such complaints don't apply to desserts, which are smaller and better than those at any Indian restaurant in town. Custardy rice pudding (kheer) whispers alluring hints of cardamom, orange peel, and Grand Marnier. Creamy-smooth mango pot de crème is subtly informed by the tropical fruit, a small piece of which lays across the pudding and exudes a faint whiff of saffron. Kulfi is classic, made from milk that has been boiled and reduced with flavoring, in this case cardamom (with an even fainter saffron whiff), then placed in a conical device, and frozen into a densely chewy ice cream. (Unlike its Western counterpart, kulfi has no air whipped into it.)
One evening, while we were sitting outdoors, somebody upstairs twisted the faucet knob — literally seconds after our waiter finished extolling the waterproofing virtues of the oversize umbrella above us. Alas, he didn't take in the wind factor. Smaller umbrellas were employed to escort diners indoors (two at a time), but almost everybody entered the restaurant with their backs wet. Luckily for us, if not for the business, the sparse number of patrons could fit at the 14-seater, with a few stools left over. We hadn't yet ordered, unlike the couple next to us who arrived inside a few minutes before their half-eaten dinners did. Their plates didn't look wet, but the meals couldn't have been very warm at that point — my point being it is advisable to consult the Weather Channel before making reservations.