By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Indian food has had a tough time here. The land of steaks as thick as phone books and spuds the size of VW Beetles is inhospitable to cuisine more complex than a T-bone. Stripped down to its basics, Indian grub incorporates some two dozen herbs and spices, including coconut, chilies, tamarind, saffron, mango powder, cloves, garlic and curry--itself a cluster bomb of tongue perturbations. It's a cuisine that comes from a culture that, with a straight face, boasts that a proper well-balanced meal contains all six basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and spicy-pungent. Most people in Dallas don't brush up against that range of tastes over an entire month if you don't count Keystone Light.
Whatever the reason, most Indian restaurants here don't display the complexity and creativity inherent in the cuisine and instead resort to buffet tables and tandoori treatments that turn the food into infant gruel and jerky. That tandoor, a clay oven fired by charcoal and the Clay Pit Grill & Curry House's namesake, is used for roasting marinated meats and vegetables as well as baking Indian flatbread known as nan. It's a volatile culinary instrument, reaching temperatures of more than 500 degrees, and in our experience it rarely excretes fodder more enticing than plush burlap, at least in Dallas.
Clay Pit is an offshoot of a highly successful restaurant in Austin opened in 1998 by chef Tinku Saini and Nazir Khamisa, the latter the founder of Chutney's restaurant in Seattle. Clay Pit proffers contemporary Indian cuisine, an innovation that melds traditional Indian dishes with contemporary touches: sinking mussels in a curry sauce dolled up with garlic, red wine and rose water, for instance. This addicting thick and red slurry is rich and zesty, full and robust. An order of nan for mopping is essential, but the meat tucked within the shells was tiny and a little mushy, though it was generally clean in flavor.
4460 Belt Line Road
Addison, TX 75001
Like all great entrepreneurial flourishes fed on buzzwords, Clay Pit has a mission statement. "At Clay Pit, we are committed to providing our guests a high-energy, contemporary restaurant and bar with fresh, innovative Indian food at moderate prices...At Clay Pit, we have devoted meticulous attention to our selection of wines, specialty drinks and beers to perfectly complement our food...Clay Pit is known for knowledgeable and personable wait staff who are actively engaged with their tables. They are not order takers..." And so on.
The statement is somewhat true. The food is indeed imaginative and reasonably priced. The wine list is a thoughtful lot, including a smattering (though not enough) of Gewurztraminers and Rieslings that pair well with punchy curries that can sometimes come on like a flamethrower. And the servers are certainly personable. But knowledgeable?
Our server didn't know the difference between a red and a white wine, a distinction that could reasonably be classified as fundamental.
Service foibles aside, Clay Pit food is flawed but mostly good, with some entrants slipping into exceptional. Complimentary crisp tortilla-like flecks roasted in a tandoor oven are served with a trio of sauces including a mint chutney, a tamarind chutney and a salsa.
Coriander calamari, however, sounds more innovative than it is. The little uniform rings were buttery, and the coating was well-seasoned, or least seasoned more than most versions. But they were greasy and a little mushy, and the garlic-cilantro dipping sauce was a little tepid.
Pakoras--chickpea and cumin-battered cauliflower, onion, zucchini, potato--also lacked spark. Cucumber salad, an inelegantly strewn mesh of cucumber slices, onion and waxy tomato wedges in a bracing tamarind dressing, was so cold it numbed the taste buds. But mulligatawny soup was sublime: smooth, chunkless and zesty, with hearty earthen flavors that were clean and sharp.
The vast majority of the Pit's grilled meats, tortured as they were in a tandoor oven, were parched. The mixed grill was riddled with dry chicken, Brillo pads of beef and overcooked lamb, though the latter retained enough flavor and hints of sweat to make it appealing.
A skillfully executed sauce can overcome dry meat--at least partially. Lamb chunks pillowed in thick vindaloo curry were overcooked, dry and chewy, but the rich brazenness of the sauce, bumped with onions, bell peppers and potatoes and suffused with a paprika and tamarind chutney, clouded over these deficiencies.
Even the wet stuff wasn't wet. Seafood grill contained a parched piece of unidentified fish, mealy prawns and a delicious slab of flaky, moist (surprise!) salmon.
The Pit is a retrofit of a Black-eyed Pea, and it retains a bit of that Spartan feel, albeit with a few flourishes stapled onto it. A large glass water wall marks the entrance, and a strip of curvaceous banquettes with rectangular cobalt blue peepholes separates the dining room from the bar. A slightly elevated dining area features an apparatus containing three false windows with shimmery draperies shielding the wall behind it. It's an ambience rich in amber and rust that is rudely invaded by the harsh fluorescent lighting spilling from wide-open kitchen doors at each end. Our server said the open kitchen doors are intended to flood the room with curry aromas, but since when is curry thwarted by shut doors, or concrete walls for that matter?