"If I don't get proper Indian food for a week, I get right sick." Demonstrating her point, Jaz, a friend from London whose parents emigrated from India, coughed and sniffled in my direction. "See what I mean?"
Good thing, then, that she and her British boyfriend Nicky were here visiting for only ten days or so. If she'd had to go any longer without the sinus-clearing benefits of curry, her cold probably would have ripened into pneumonia. Good thing too that Jaz doesn't actually live in Miami. Unlike a city such as London, where a respectable curry is as common as a pint of room-temperature beer, this metropolis clearly lacks both Indian communities and cuisine. Those half-dozen restaurants we do have are, for the most part, inconsistent, unjustly expensive, or about as representative of Indian chow as egg foo yung is of Chinese.
So good thing again that we took Jaz and her friends Martin (another Brit) and Eva to Shalimar, a two-month-old Indian eatery way out in the Kendall boonies. With this critical crew in tow -- plus a husband who cares for Indian food about as much as he enjoys giving me a lengthy foot massage -- I prayed for at least decent subcontinental cuisine. I knew I'd never hear the end of it if the place stank. What I didn't realize was that the delighted praise would be louder and more continuous than the faultfinding I had anticipated -- I could literally hear Jaz healing and my husband converting as they devoured dish after perfectly spiced dish.
From the outset, I was reassured by the decor. The spacious and bright dining room, its walls sponge-painted a golden curry color, seats about 80, and there's plenty of floor for more. Sculpted arches front the booths that line the room; subtle prints and lilting Indian tunes from the Thirties and Forties (which Jaz likened to the popularity of retro cabaret here) are the only initial hints of nationality. Finally -- a restaurant done up without the garish cliches of purple or red upholstery and wailing sitars.
The meal started off traditionally, with complimentary pappadam and a trio of chutneys. The crisp, lacy crackers were peppery, accented best by the chopped onion-tomato relish. We also appreciated the refreshing mint chutney, really more of a chili-laced paste, but found the mango concoction too sweet and smooth, like jam.
Starters number a half-dozen. On the mixed appetizer platter (at $6.95, probably the best deal), you get samosas and two different kinds of pakora. The vegetable samosa was excellent, a flaky, greaseless, deep-fried turnover stuffed with potatoes, carrots, and peas and spiced with fenugreek. Jaz deemed it "a bit mitchy" -- meaning spicy -- and it was surprisingly piquant with pepper. Spidery, untidy pakoras, onion fritters made with chickpea flour, were milder and tender-crisp, but a little more slippery with oil, as were cheese-filled paneer pakoras. A side salad, also on the platter, cooled the palate with its vinegared mix of chopped fresh onions, cucumbers, and green bell peppers.
Raita is another way to rejuvenate the mouth between courses. The kitchen's take on this cucumber-yogurt sauce was a bit thin but refreshing all the same, especially when paired with the Shalimar bread basket: the diner's choice of three of the restaurant's half-dozen homemade breads. We selected the fluffy puri, which is deep-fried, as well as the buttery, bubbly nan and the whole-wheat roti, both of them baked in the clay tandoor oven.
Main courses are varied and of good value. A roasted leg of lamb looks expensive at $39.95, for example, but it feeds four. Lamb saag was a delightful alternative to that hefty entree, comprising boneless cubes of succulent and flavorful lamb braised with onions and tomatoes. A spinach sauce, a puree of that leafy green, added a silky texture.
Another lamb treatment, the yogurt-marinated kebab that came as part of the mixed tandoori grill entree, was a bit dry but so wonderfully herbed that we marveled at the blend of flavors. The chicken tikka that matched it was juicier, nearly as supple as the tandoori preparation of the bird, which was exceptional, scarlet with rubbed spices rather than merely painted with the M&M food coloring I've come to expect from lesser local eateries. (Likewise the tandoori shrimp.) Shish kebab, lamb ground with onions, ginger, and garlic and then cooked on skewers in the oven, was yet another sensation. As if this varied platter of meats weren't generous enough, a side salad and slow-cooked dal (lentils) did duty as accompaniments.
Chicken again proved a winner as shali korma, hunks of white meat simmered in a delicate pink cream sauce. Made with yogurt or sour cream, onions, and chopped tomatoes, the sauce is composed of so many spices -- cumin, coriander, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, and cardamom pods, to name a few -- it takes an expert to combine them properly.
My friend Martin got what he deserved when he ordered his Kingfisher beer cold and his chicken bhona -- chunks of boneless, skinless fowl pan-fried with onions, garlic, and ginger -- hot. "I want it medium, mate, but remember I'm English, so make that medium, if you know what I mean." Apparently the server understood exactly: Double the peppers, mate; the stomach's an internal sauna. Martin ate with one hand and wiped away the sweat with the other.
I'm frequently dismayed by the quality of seafood in ethnic establishments, but I needn't have worried here. Shrimp makhani was dreamy, a bowl of succulent jumbos in a rich sauce of heavy cream and butter. The sauce was thinned and flavored with coconut, ginger, and garlic, lending this dish something of a Thai accent.
Indian food is just as much fun for vegetarians as it is for carnivorous folk. Like the dal, chana masala was stewed with onions and bell peppers, but chickpeas rather than yellow lentils were the main ingredient. This was a hearty, tasty combination, particularly when wrapped in small pieces of puri; scooping up the goods with bread, Jaz confirmed, is the best way to eat a meal. One letdown: All the entrees were partnered by vegetable biryani, a rather unexceptional basmati rice pilaf dotted with what looked to be a mixture of frozen peas, cubed carrots, and chopped green beans.
Desserts got Jaz, well, jazzed. Kulfi flavored with mango and pistachio, I agreed with her, were endearingly smooth. (This Indian ice cream, made with boiled down or evaporated milk, sometimes tends to be icy in texture). But I didn't much care for the gulab jamun. These fried dough balls, like doughnuts, are usually my favorite, but here the syrup was teeth-achingly sweet, the dough uncooked and gooey in the middle. Ras malai was the most interesting sweet for the Westerner, and the most satisfying to the native Indian: Cubes of sugared cheese were baked, then soaked in cream spiked with saffron and cardamom and served chilled in half-and-half like a frothy soup.
Paan, the betel leaf packet filled with everything from lime paste to tobacco to crushed pearls (supposedly an aphrodisiac), is never available in the States; given agricultural restrictions it's impossible to legally import the live plant from the East. Those wishing to end the meal on a genuine note can instead grab a handful of cardamom seeds to chew on the way home. According to Jaz, they have the power to freshen the breath as much as Indian cuisine in general has the ability to restore good health. Looking at her eyes, no longer tearing from the weight of her cold but sparkling from the uplifting meal, I'd have to say I believe her.
9564 SW 137th Ave; 386-0545. Lunch Tuesday -- Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Tuesday -- Friday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., Saturday until 11:00.
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Mixed tandoori grill