Ray of Bengal
Around this prostitution-trafficky stretch of Biscayne Boulevard, the term "hot" has traditionally been more associated with the word "pants" than with "food." That changed last year with the opening of Renaisa, in the rather dilapidated building long occupied by the Bimini, a basic bar/fried fish joint on Little River that had changed its name to the Madonna to attract customers from the neighboring Madonna strip club -- which promptly changed its moniker, foiling the eatery's strategy but leaving an unsavory cast on the place. The rambling shack would therefore seem an unlikely location for any fine-dining restaurant to most Miamians. But fortunately it didn't stop the Rahmans, from Bangladesh via Boca Raton, who discovered the spot accidentally and now serve, in several renovated river-view rooms hung with exotic oriental print fabrics, some of Miami's most interesting Indian food, including Bengali specialties not found anywhere else in town.
Actually some of the menu's more unusual items have been axed since opening, like elish bahji (featuring a type of shad that accounts for 30 percent of Bangladesh's fish catch but has to be imported here), and jhal muri, a wildly popular street snack in both Bangladesh and the adjoining Indian state of Bengal -- not to mention in my own personal heart. I adore the savory sautéed mix of onion and chili-spiked puffed rice plus green pea and chickpea flour crunchies. Fortunately cook Bithi Rahman and her family are serious about accommodating diners; on a second visit, she made my table a custom order.
I'd highly recommend you call ahead and arrange the same, especially if the booze you bring to accompany dinner (there's no liquor license) is beer. Muri and brewski go together like Ben and Matt.
The Rahmans are also serious about spiciness, so diners should take the one-to-five heat scale servers offer for all dishes very, very seriously. On a first visit, I pooh-poohed our waitress's warning that "three" was hot, not medium, assuming that food would be damped to American tastes, and ended up with a "chef's choice" pumpkin patey (pumpkin sautéed soft with onions, green chilies, and Indian pickle) so incendiary that all other spicing was obliterated by the fire. Lamb pasanda, delectably tender bits of meat in a creamy "three" sauce with nuts and raisins, was lovely but almost as hot. So was Bombay chat, an appealing though odd dish featuring a hill of crushed samosas plus potatoes and chickpeas, in a pool of yogurt sauce that should have been cooling but, being also a "three," wasn't.
When I ran out to the car for more beer, my equally scorched dining companion quizzed our chuckling waitress. Oddly, a dish ordered "three" on a second visit was indeed just medium-hot. Still: Listen to your server.
As would be expected in a nation of which one-third is underwater during rainy season (the multiforked mouth of the Ganges River empties into the Bay of Bengal from Bangladesh's coastal plain), fish is a specialty. Since one way that Bangladesh cooking differs from that in Bengal is more use of coconut, we tried coconut shrimp. These proved, fortunately, to be not the ubiquitous tropical appetizer of deep-fried shrimp coated with coconut shreds, but battered shrimp that appeared from their telltale red border to have been first cooked in Renaisa's tandoor and then, to counter clay-oven dryness, bathed in a complex though slightly oversalted coconut sauce. In contrast the mahi-mahi in strongly cumin-flavored fish karahi, a Balti-style dish stir-fried and served in its own karahi (a flat-bottomed iron mini-wok that imparted a very subtle scorched smokyness to the fillets), had no sauce to alleviate dryness, but sautéed tomato wedges did the trick as onions and green peppers added refreshing crunch.
Fish also figured in an outstanding appetizer: mass bora, half a dozen slightly mouth-tingling ("two") fried patties of spiced ground fish, sprinkled with cilantro plus onion and green pepper.
While Bangladesh is over 80 percent Muslim (as opposed to India, which is over 80 percent Hindu), it's also predominantly agricultural, so although Renaisa's cuisine is halal it unsurprisingly has a large proportion of vegetarian dishes compared with meat-loving northern India. Traditional benigan bhartha, described as "grilled eggplants" on the menu, was actually a sort of eggplant purée with onion, enriched with chilies, cilantro, and several other spices I couldn't pinpoint but found intriguingly different, like baba ghannouj kicked up many notches. And veggie kebab may sound insubstantial but proved to be a huge mixed platter of cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, peppers, and onions plus a thick slice of pressed paneer cheese, all full-flavored from cooking in Renaisa's tandoor.
For those who still believe in butter, traditional chicken roast and paneer makhni were ghee-whiz wonderful treats. The former was juicy chicken pieces in a thick, heavy cream/yogurt gravy. The latter's sauce, just as sinful but slightly sweet and enriched with tomato purée and sautéed onions, was the perfect foil for the dense paneer curds. To finish off the meal in an equally heartwarming, if potentially heart-stopping, manner -- Bangladesh is big on desserts -- try scrumptious rosmalai, sweetened fried cheese balls in heavy cream sauce.
All the usual Indian sides were available, including cooling raita (spiced yogurt), a wise investment at just $2, and particularly good puri (puffy fried bread) for $2.95. But unlike at some Miami Indian joints where all extras cost extra, Renaisa's rice, a big platter, came free, as did three tasty chutneys: bittersweet tamarind, tangy red onion, and sinus-clearing cilantro. Complimentary pappadams (crispy-fried lentil crackers) accompanied the relishes on one visit, but not the other. All the above, plus especially generous portions for an Indian restaurant and Renaisa's money-saving BYOB policy, make this an unusually neighborly, if not your usual neighborhood, restaurant.
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