A Passage to India
Anokha isn't the prettiest restaurant in town. The small, faintly lit, 36-seat room boasts bare beige burlap walls, a black ceiling, and ... well that's about it, other than shiny-top tables and wooden chairs (plus some outdoor seating). You'd hardly know this was an Indian establishment except for a scattering of statuettes (Krishna, Buddha, elephants) on shelves by the front window, and a slightly elevated section at the back of the space where patrons dine while seated upon silky pillows on a darkly carpeted floor. (Anokha's motto, "Atithi devo bhava," translates to "A guest is equal to God and should be treated as such." If they really mean this, it's time to replace the aged carpeting, and a few new throw pillows are overdue as well.) But you don't go to Anokha for the ambiance. And you certainly shouldn't head there for a quick bite to eat, because the wait before and between courses has always been, and still is, dishearteningly slow. It's a good thing waiters come by every now and then to pour water, because otherwise the assumption would be they'd forgotten about you. If time is on your side, the slow pace of the place can make for a leisurely meal to linger over, but the real rationale for dining at Anokha is to revel in well-executed Indian cuisine that stretches beyond the scope of fare featured in our few other Indian eateries.
The breadth of Indian cooking is breathlessly vast, as one might expect from a land with more than a billion people, 550,000 villages, and fifteen official languages (sixteen if you include baby talk). Throughout its colorful history, the country's composite stock pot has enjoyed contributions first by Arab and Chinese traders and then by a succession of conquering armies composed of Portuguese, Persians, Mongols, Turks, and Brits. Except for the last, those are pretty enviable culinary influences (the Mongols made a mean curry seriously). And it's not as though England didn't throw anything into the pot; the ever-popular chicken tikka masala originated there. The "chicken tikka platter," most likely originating at Anokha, provides six lush clumps of breast meat divided into three pairs, each duo dressed in a different marinade, all tenderly toasted in the tandoor. This token of tikkas totaled $15, which isn't an unfair price although it would be deemed a better deal in India, where chicken is held in high esteem and serves as a big-ticket item in restaurants.
Despite the country's diversity of cultures, it has been suggested that there are really only two types of Indians: rice-eaters and wheat-eaters. During times of food shortages, citizens must declare themselves one or the other, the preference then stamped upon their ration cards. Eastern India receives heavy rainfall, so rice is the major crop there, as it is in most of the south, where the grain is often sided by meats and curries. North and west comprise a territorial loaf of wheat country, with chapati and roti breads supplemented with yogurt, dals, curries, and chutneys. Actually there are really three types of Indians if you include those difficult sorts (every subcontinent has its share) who insist on indulging in rice and wheat. Anokha covers all possibilities, beginning with a bounty of baked, grilled, and fried breads. Poori is the puffy one; roti and chapati are flat and tortillalike; pappadom is a papery wafer; nan is tear-shaped and baked on the sides of the tandoor; and kulcha is nan garnished with choice of toppings. My companions favored the piyaaz kulcha accented with potatoes, onions, and mint, but every bread we broke was worthy. The dough costs dough, though, as do an assortment of chutneys and hot pickles. Everything here is à la carte, including rice, but don't let that stop you from ordering either saffron-tinged basmati studded with sweet raisins, or basic, naturally aromatic basmati further fragranced with toasted cumin seeds.
Anokha's extensive menu encompasses regional specialties from all over the Indian map, but more often than not its culinary compass points southward toward the region of Goa, from which comes the appetizer stuffed papad, a crisp crêpe of pappadom rolled around either a wild mushroom or spicy minced chicken filling. The "Anokha roll" brings a softer, egg-battered roti embracing the same patty of pleasingly piquant poultry.
The mushroom papad is just one of numerous vegetable-based items, and there are quite a few vegan offerings as well (clearly delineated on the menu). Vegetarians are drawn to Indian restaurants for the rare opportunity to indulge in noncarnivorous courses that are as meticulously cooked as those containing meat, and Anokha won't disappoint this discriminated-against demographic. Paneer, a fresh, mild Indian cheese made from pressed yogurt, possesses a similar soft texture and nontaste as tofu, and as such easily assumes the identity of the sauce in which it sits. Saag paneer pairs cubes of the white curd with creamy, ginger-and-cinnamon flecked spinach, while mutter paneer presents the same seasonings and cheese with peas instead.
Harey bharey might sound like a famous baseball announcer, but in fact it's a quartet of cleanly fried potato croquettes, the creamy stuffings brightened by carrots, corn, green beans, and a hint of fresh mint. In a different vegetarian potato croquette called malai kofta palakwala, the puréed spud is punched up with paneer and nuts and pooled in spicy spinach curry.
How spicy? That's up to you, as Anokha's waiters consistently query customers concerning requested degree: mild, medium, or hot. Unless your means of employment is that of circus fire-eater, I suggest sticking to one of the first two options. The red chili-flecked Goan specialty vindaloo murghi is certainly incendiary enough in a medium state. This reddish-brown chicken breast stew will light fires in your throat but won't stop your taste buds from discerning garlic, vinegar, and perfumed notes of ginger, cumin, and clove. Safed gosht is another seductively spiced stew, this one spiked with coconut milk and laden with luscious lumps of lamb.
Residents of Delhi were unaware of tandoori cooking until the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, which brought waves of refugees from the northwest Indian/Pakistani frontier into the city. Some of the newcomers opened restaurants, a tiny one of which, Moti Mahal, specialized in chicken, meats, fish, and bread grilled in a deep clay oven known as the tandoor. It wasn't long before limos were lining up in front of the humble eatery, and Moti Mahal became Delhi's darling dining destination. Nowadays just about every Indian (and Indian-American) restaurant proffers platters of the glowing red foods. Anokha's tandoori is pretty standard stuff, although its sizzling presentation emits enough smoke to make an arsonist salivate, and the accompanying aromas of barbecue meats incite the senses of everyone else especially those at the nearest tables. The tandoori combo plate is a convenient means of trying more than one meat. More specifically: three juicy, medium-size shrimp; a moist breast and meaty wing of chicken; hunks of stewed lamb shoulder; and a pair of cigar-shape seekh kebabs skewered with minced, assertively seasoned lamb (an invention of the Muslims, who cooked from the old tandoori testament).
Some Indian desserts take getting used to. Gulab jamun, for example, features lightly fried balls of cake soaked in syrup, which sounds fetching enough, but a faint scenting of rose water and cardamom might turn off timid tasters. For a safer bet, try kulfi, ice cream made of thickened milk frozen in a conical mold. Pistachio is the traditional flavor and the one I recommend, but a refreshing mango rendition is also up for grabs.
After nearly eight years in operation, Anokha arguably remains the best local option for Indian food. Indeed it is so satisfying that few will haggle over the automatic eighteen percent gratuity. Still, is that any way to treat God?
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