Brass balls. The first time I heard restaurateur Mark Brezinski, a founding partner of Tin Star and Pei Wei Asian Diner chains, was banking on the mainstreaming of Indian cuisine, I thought he must possess brass muskets. Attempting to Pei Wei Indian food is risky. Dallas, and most cities for that matter, was well trampled with noodle houses and other Asian culinary aggregates before Pei Wei broke ground with its noodled corporate consistency. Roughly six months and $1 million of his own money later, I think it's time to toss out the brass and bring in the titanium. Bear witness: Bengal Coast Spice Traders, resting in the Centrum.
Bengal Coast is Brezinki's answer to that nagging question: Why can't Dallas get the hang of Indian cuisine? Indian food has traditionally been left to congeal and wilt on buffet tables. The food may be authentic, but it's often atrociously prepared (overcooked), heavy, indistinct, desiccated and seemingly bereft of fresh ingredients, even as it seduces with exotic scents and an intricate lattice of flavors whispering just below the loam.
Among the most successful Indian restaurants, at least in terms of taste, was Bukhara Grille. Bukhara staked its claim on Hyderabadi food, a blend of spicy Indian and Persian that derives its salience from rice, tamarind, coconut and chilies; and the foods of Lucknow, a city known for its breads and kebabs sensualized with saffron, clove, nutmeg and fennel. But Bukhara succumbed to North Texas ennui, foundering under menu sticker shock, no doubt generated by buffet table conditioning and its all-you-can-eat cost effectiveness.
Thus Bukhara is now Bukhara Wok casual Indian-Chinese diner where you can pair spring rolls with samosas (fried pastry shells filled with potato, onion and spices) or sang paneer (spinach with cheese) with Szechuan chicken plus your choice of teriyaki paneer or paneer chop suey. There is the Clay Pit, a worthy attempt to contemporize and mainstream the vast Indian breadth, but...
Brezinski attributes the general failure of Indian to penetrate and thrive to a clash between what he calls lovers of first-generation Indian foods and those smitten by second-generation Indian foods. First-generation is anchored in traditional recipes—heavy, more imbued with fats. Second-generation Indian foods are lighter, freer, more lithe, grounded in traditional recipes yet more likely to traverse boundaries—a species of global fusion shtick.
There is a sublime logic to Brezinki's mainstreaming madness. He's steeped his Indian core with Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian influences, abrading the edges, buffering the heat. Thus, subtle layers of outlier exotica fills the void left by these dampened spices. There's intelligence at work here, a border fusion with intrinsic symbiosis, even if some Indian elements—cloves, cinnamon, cardamom—don't necessarily translate cleanly, though cardamom is deeply woven into Malaysian fabric.
Bengal Coast is mainstreaming without the dumbness. It roasts its own spices. It drafts more than 27 distinct sauces and marinades, given sustenance not from soy or oil but from a spitting cauldron of broth, a culinary mothership that bubbles constantly, leaching and condensing stamina from bok choy, ginger, onion and carrot into heady stock.
Yet it's beef stock that saturates the crispy Malay beef, curled tongues of irresistibly rich meat, marinated in an herb-addled broth before it's scored in a wok fired with chilies and scallions, mushrooms and snap peas and touched with coconut cream. The only setback is the bed of overcooked pad Thai noodles upon which the beef nests.
Bengal Coast supplies samosas in a variety of incarnations filled with chicken, pork or vegetable. And Thai lobster. It's a blatant fusion bastard, juicy gems of lobster mingling with cream cheese, cilantro, black mustard seed, kafir lime, galangal and chili—stuff you'd never see in a traditional samosa—encapsulated in a crisp, greaseless throw pillow. It's among the best you'll find structurally.
His ambition, Brezinski admits without hesitation, is to create the P.F. Chang's of Indian food, and it's gratifying that his quest isn't diluted with influences that are blatantly American, though he has allowed himself to fall under the spell of one P.F. Chang's seduction, ripping the worn lettuce wrap from its canon.
Little gem lettuce boats are Bibb lettuce leaves arced around a bowl of Thai crispy pork or Goan chicken or chickpea vegetable or chilled yellowfin tuna. Yellowfin is a tartare mound with sliced radish and julienne snap peas forming a stylish tuft across the top, tuna grindings dressed with ginger, chili aioli, cilantro, basil, avocado and toasted cumin—Asia meets California meets the kingdom of Chang. Yet the elaborateness is assembled in discrete layers of flavor that touch in succinct chapters—near perfect if it weren't for the brown, splitting ribs on some of those Bibb cups.
To mold the contours of the Bengal Coast menu, Brezinski traversed the globe, polishing off six to seven meals per day, gathering intelligence from Bangkok, Mumbai and London among other locales with celebrated chef Mark Miller (Coyote Café in Santa Fe and Wildfire in Sydney) in tow. A travel log collage tiles the walls, adding muted color to the dining room's intense oranges and purples and reds and golds and counter surfaces slicked in onyx. Among his travel winnings were a pair of chefs to command his open kitchen: Neville Panphaky from Delhi and Anupam Joglekar from Mumbai.
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Thus we get pork vindaloo with restrained intensity, braised in curry, juicy and fragrant. Beef panang curry is strips of rich flap steak with the heady breath of kafir lime and galangal. There is an array of mix-and-match skewers called small sticks: chicken tikka with a silky yogurt frosting applied to thigh meat; shrimp with sweet Thai chili sauce; chicken breast meshed with a cream cheese cilantro marinade laced with lime; sirloin flap steak with red curry, palm sugar and soy. Sticks bulk up into full-blown kebabs for dinner.
There are naan bread wraps for lunch and crafty hybrids that wink at colonial baggage. Fish and chips masala is strips of cod in a singed carapace of chickpea-Kingfisher beer batter seasoned with garam masala, making them aromatic and sweet. A loose knot of tropical slaw in a terse lime vinaigrette adds cleansing edge. Garam masala, a blend of ground clove, cinnamon, cardamom and salt, is loaded into shakers on the table. I desperately yearn for a Bengalized saag paneer.
Finish with the deliciously exotic masala chai tiramisu with cardamom, the mango rice pudding, chocolate spring rolls or maybe a rum-soaked mango lassi. Bengal Coast is a collection of mergings that feels more elegant than forced. The food is lithe and distinct. With perseverance, those Chang dreams will morph into ka-ching reality.
3102 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-521-8600. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$