Tinny pings of sitar music tinkle through the air at Anokha, Coconut Grove's first Indian restaurant, while waiters in white gauze shirts carry trays of aromatic food through the dimly lit, 40-seat dining room. It's a simply decorated space, with none of the heavy draperies and dusty Eastern artifacts prevalent in these places. Three pale-yellow walls, dressed to the waist in brown wainscoting, are each adorned with only a single framed Indian print; the fourth contains a storefront window that looks out on a half-dozen tables on the sidewalk. All in all a pleasantly tranquil ambiance, though the sparse number of diners present may have contributed to this quietude.
Indian food can be a hard sell. All too often this cuisine is associated with dishes heavy-handedly prepared with the potent commercial curries found in supermarket spice racks. Anokha is the perfect place to dispel such misconceptions. The clean flavors and subtle application of complex seasonings that characterize the cooking here have more in common with Thai food than those unappealing curry concoctions; curry, as a matter of fact, isn't even mentioned in the names of any of Anokha's more than 75 menu items.
Which isn't to say the food doesn't pack a punch. Most of the main courses feature well-spiced sauces and are served in stainless steel bowls that sit in small tabletop chafing dishes. Two such stellar stews: safed gosht ($12.95), with tender chunks of boneless lamb and diced potatoes in a moderately piquant coconut sauce; and vindaloo murghi, soft morsels of chicken breast simmered in a fiery brew of vinegar, garlic, and green chilies. We also tried a trio of large, round potato croquettes, figuring that any nation with 100 million vegetarians is bound to possess some good meatless recipes. The fritters, with nuts and cheese blended into the creamy potato filling, were deliciously smothered in a spicy spinach and tomato sauce, but the dish was somewhat one-dimensional in texture and flavor; it probably would work better as a side than a main course, or alongside a couple of the other vegetarian offerings for a no-meat feast.
Chicken tandoori, marinated in lemon juice, ginger, garlic, saffron, yogurt, and spices ($12.95), gets cooked in the ultrahot tandoor, a coal-fueled clay-walled oven that grills and bakes food at the same time. The bird was tender and juicy, but scrawny. If you enjoy the charcoal flavors that the tandoor imparts, you'll surely be pleased with the tandoori sampler, which includes shrimp and two lamb dishes along with the chicken. Servings of basmati rice, by the way, must be ordered separately. Each steaming bowl costs $3.95, and contains enough for two people.
Naan, a leavened flatbread baked on the walls of tandoors (which were originally created for breads), comes plain or filled with a small amount of spiced lamb, raisins, coconut, or sesame seeds; or potatoes and chives. All versions were fine, but no such glory to the poori; normally light, deep-fried puffs of whole-wheat bread, the ones here were dense.
Atithi Devo Bhava, an ancient Sanskrit saying printed on the front page of Anokha's menu, means that "a guest is equal to God and should be treated as such." Taking them at their word, I was stunned by the often negligent service. This is the way they treat their Lord? Seriously, though, we were served at different times by waiters who had the right attitude, but were either new hires or just not on top of the game. On our initial visit we sat for about ten minutes until some chips, the type that puff into Styrofoamlike wafers when fried, were brought to us with a pungent spread made with tomatoes, cumin, and garlic. The first real food didn't come for another fifteen minutes, nor did the waiter to see if we needed anything. On a second sojourn our waiter neglected even to bring us chips, so we sat foodless for about half an hour, until finally two dips, one green and one red, were placed before us. When we asked what they were, the waiter replied, "I'm not really sure," then pointed to the dish of red and added, not in jest, "other than this one has more tomatoes than the other."
The green one was easy to figure out, aromatic as it was with fresh mint and cilantro and potently flavored with garlic, chilies, and lemon juice. It's similar to chimichurri and Afghani coriander sauce, which means it's great over grilled meats like the soon-to-arrive starter of chappal kebab, two zestily seasoned lamb patties atop pita circles and sizzled red onions ($6.95). The red dip turned out to be a sweet and spicy tomato chutney intended to uplift an appetizer of five moist, medium-size, breaded crustaceans into something better than just fried shrimp. It did. The Anokha roll ($6.95) was also good, piquant pieces of chicken with onions, cilantro, and mint in what tasted like a crêpe, but was really an egg-battered roti (thin bread). The sole disappointment, lamb samosas, were the traditional triangular pastries, but filled with a bland blend of ground meat and peas. I used up a lot of dip with these.
While we waited for dessert, the staff brought in chairs, pumped up the music, and kept themselves busy shutting down the shop; it's not as though we started dining just before closing time, either. Indian desserts are only worth this sort of wait if you like things very sweet and very rich. I don't, though I did enjoy the kulfi ($3.95), a pistachio ice cream perfumed with cardamom and served in a dish of heavy cream. Also aswirl in cream was gajar ka halwa, which comprised grated carrots cooked with milk, sugar, raisins, and ghee (clarified butter) until transformed into a sweet, buttery, homogeneous clump with almost no carrot taste. The third classic Indian dessert we sampled, gulab jamun, is prepared by frying balls made from a batter of powdered milk, then boiling them in rose-flavored sugar syrup. Served warm in that syrup, they were soothing and tasty, though the estimated calories per ball is roughly equivalent to the number of people living in Calcutta. After dessert we waited some more for our chai tea: $2.50 per cup seemed a bit steep, but chai is special, an exotic blend of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, star anise, black pepper, and tea leaves from India's Malabar coast. The chai we received tasted more like a blend of Lipton's tea bag and water. Like the entire end-of-meal experience, it left us with a slightly bitter taste -- not the best way for a relatively new restaurant (seven months old) to curry customers.
The coupling of fine traditional Indian cuisine with sloppy modern South Florida service is not, as disconcerting as it is, unexpected. Still, the owners give every impression that they're interested in doing things right, which makes me confident that service will improve; the heights of flavor that Anokha's food reaches make it the Himalayas of local Indian restaurants.
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