Walk into Diya Indian Kitchen Bar & Lounge and you're hit by the aromas of all manner of foods in the making: It might be the warm, nutty, smoky scent of cumin seed mixed with the earthiness of freshly plucked curry leaves that go into a matar masala in which mushrooms and peas come together in a creamy sauce. You might catch a whiff of the garlic and butter that are mixed to flavor naan bread. Or it might be the gentle sweetness of cardamom that soaks the ras malai tres leches, topped with ricotta instead of whipped cream.
Open since December, Diya is located in the former Burger & Beer Joint space in Sunset Harbour, with a rich and rustic décor in white and blue, accentuated by copper accents. Along with its main dining room, Diya offers seating on its outdoor patio for patrons who prefer to dine al fresco.
Throughout the day, the Marahaj family can be spotted overseeing and working in the different areas of this vegetable-forward restaurant, making sure everything comes together.
"We're building a restaurant from locals to locals, and when you have a family that can work together, that is an advantage," says Manni Marahaj, who runs Diya with his sister Vidya and brother Dharam and Dharam's wife, Valerie Slone.
The family moved to Miami in 1988 from Trinidad and Tobago. Manni says the idea for a vegetarian restaurant was born after his father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and his mother integrated traditional Ayurvedic cooking techniques and a combination of herbs, spices, and vegetables to aid in his treatment.
"Friends and relatives would come to visit, try the food, and motivate us to open our own restaurant," Manni says. "Our concept is based on the feeling of a second home, where people can gather around nourishing food."
Vidya Maharaj, an epidemiologist, helms the kitchen. Her menu of family recipes relies on vegetables and spices to carry the flavor, seamlessly integrating immunity-boosting spices like ginger and turmeric with antioxidant-packed herbs like cilantro and culantro.
The family traces its roots to North India, where the cuisine is marked by a variety of breads and aromatic gravies, but Diya augments its menu with South and East Indian specialties.
"We didn't want to shortchange our guests when there's so much depth to Indian cookery," Manni explains. "Also, there's this stigma that Indian food has to be spicy, but we have adapted it to the American palate, adjusting the heat to clients' preferences, and traditionally modernizing the dishes."
The menu opens with appetizers of grilled Indian cottage cheese ($16); beet samosas topped with a goat cheese cilantro chutney ($14); and gobi Manchurian — fried cauliflower marinated in spices ($14).
Entreés include curried vegetable biryani ($18); malai kofta, a dish of fried potato, paneer and vegetable balls in a curry cashew sauce ($22); and mushroom matar masala with sweet peas in a curry sauce, paired with rice ($16). The restaurant's signature eggplant nirvana burger is made with homemade cheese and barbecue sauce and comes with a side of masala fries ($14).
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There are seven varieties of dosa (classic Southern Indian rice pancakes): served plain ($10); filled with spinach and Indian cheese ($14); or with toppings such as red sauce, cheese, and vegetables ($12); or a blend of four types of cheese ($12). All are accompanied by soup and chutney. Hot sauces are made from scratch, including red and orange habanero and Trinidad moruga scorpion, said to be the world's second-hottest chili pepper.
The dessert list includes gulab jamoon, an Indian fried donut ($11); Kashmiri flan flavored with rosewater ($9); and homemade saffron-spiced rice ice cream ($11).
For now, the restaurant is open for dinner only, but the family plans to incorporate a South Indian breakfast service and buffet option.
Diya Indian Kitchen Bar & Lounge. 1766 Bay Rd., Miami Beach; 305-763-8948; diyaindiankitchen.com. Tuesday through Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m.