Tandoor is the Night

Rome wasn't built in a day, but Miami's reputation for outstanding Indian cuisine seems to have developed overnight. The apparent meteoric rise is due largely to a dynasty of restaurateurs who chose our city to branch out from its firm base in Great Britain.

First came the Miami branch of Akash of London on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami. That was followed by Darbar in Coral Gables. And just three months ago, another jewel was added to the crown: Passage to India on South Beach. Each establishment is different in atmosphere: Akash is homey, Darbar is like a classy British club, and the new baby - run by Bipin Choudhry, son of the Akash of London patriarch - is very post-modern South Beach. The room is done in earth colors with a spare and uncluttered use of embellishment - an ancient Indian musical instrument rests on a small side table, a few gossamer silk saris are artfully draped among an assortment of fragmented body casts bolted to the walls. The owner, who oversaw the design of the restaurant, spotted the casts in a South Beach boutique, asked where he could buy them (which turned out to be Canada), and immediately ordered them for the restaurant. Seeing the resulting interiors, you might suspect that young Choudhry missed his calling. Until you taste the food. Then you'll become convinced that he is just as gifted in the culinary arts.

Our group of four, including a sophisticated woman who has traveled throughout India, started with a special appetizer called fish pakora. A fillet of red snapper about three inches square (and almost as plump) had been basted with a paste of turmeric, chilis, vinegar, and salt, then dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried. The result was splendid: a perfect piece of moist, flaky fish with a paper-thin, crunchy coating. We also shared a vegetable samosa. The pastry, which tasted like a rich, thin, butter cookie without the sugar, was chock-full of pureed vegetables and fresh, whole peas blended into a zingy curry.

We washed down our appetizers with a round of Kingfisher beer, which is priced at $3.50 a bottle and served in heavy ceramic steins that keep the brew frosty. We found the beer refreshing, even necessary, to clear the palate between successive spicy dishes. On our next trip to the restaurant, however, we plan to try one of the reasonably priced and carefully selected wines. Chosen for their full-bodied, frequently fruity qualities, the wines range in price from $12 to $38; Chilean, French, Californian, and Washington state wines are available by the glass for $3 to $3.75.

We ordered an entree special, a red snapper tandoori. This was a distinctive dish, and the first time I have ever tasted fish baked in the Indian clay oven. The snapper, cut into four generous portions before it was cooked, wore a bright red coat of paprika and saffron. The coating sealed in the juices of the fish, and also imbued it with a subtle peppery-sweet taste. Choudhry, who visited our table a number of times to answer our questions, told us he may add more dishes made from Florida fish to the regular menu. The restaurant regularly features three shrimp dishes but only one made from fish, a masala of the day's catch, cooked in a curry sauce ($15).

Lamb and chicken being staples of Indian cuisine, we sampled a number of dishes that featured these meats, such as the lamb tikka style, plus a biryani, and bhuna gosht. Each was a hit, but we particularly enjoyed the bhuna gosht - it was the spiciest and most pleasing to the eye. The tender, lean chunks of lamb were lent a sensory boost by an abundance of garlic, onion, and green bell pepper strips. Almost as smashing was the lamb biryani, which was served with a steaming platter of basmati rice and a tasty vegetable curry. To balance out the lamb dishes, we also chose a chicken curry, which came in the form of boneless chicken pieces in a complementary sauce, and gobi aloo, a dish of spiced cauliflower and potatoes.

While our starters and main dishes equaled more food than we were able to eat, we also ordered onion kulcha, a fabulous unleavened bread which the Indians call nan and which is served piping hot, oozing with tender onions. I could have made a meal of just the kulcha ($2.95) and the yogurt that accompanied our lamb entrees.

As for our well-traveled friend, she, too, deemed the nan delicious, and rated the service excellent. At one point, she asked for a mango chutney that was not listed on the menu. In seconds, it was presented to her by our waiter, who said he had worked for many years at Gaylord Restaurant in London, yet another of England's outstanding Indian restaurants with branches in major cities in the United States.

On Mr. Choudhry's final cordial visit to our table, we peppered him with questions about the nan, and he invited us to watch it being baked in the clay tandoori oven. We marched into the business end of the restaurant, passing at least a half-dozen busy chefs, and inhaling the alluring scents of foods being cooked in various and sundry spices. In a back corner of the kitchen stands the oven, a clay-lined brick affair about the size of one of the dining tables.

"Peer inside," invited Mr. Choudhry. As I looked down at the red-hot charcoals at the bottom of a cylindrical pit, I felt a blast of heat hit my face. The nan chef slapped an oval round of dough against the inside cylinder's wall. Almost instantly the dough began to bubble and puff up. Only minutes later, the chef carefully extracted it with a long, iron utensil that resembled a fireplace poker.

As we cooled off with another round of Kingfisher, we were so full we couldn't even think about ordering any of the desserts, which change daily. I couldn't resist, however, ordering a mint-infused Indian tea, which required no sugar.

While Akash of London and Darbar are hard acts to follow, Passage to India has made the journey into their company in record time. And with its distinct look and its greater emphasis on seafood, it's no carbon copy.

Like father, like cousin, like son. A triumvirate of fine Indian restaurants reigns in Miami.

860 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 538-8444. Dinner Sunday - Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight.


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