Indian beatitude

It doesn't take more than a taste to realize that Indian cuisine is saturated with complexity and inspiration. So saturated that, until recently, many chefs have avoided its volatile mysteries. Michael Romano, executive chef of the Union Square Cafe in New York, says using Indian spices is akin to learning a new language. At first you can only string together simple phrases.

And this is how it must be approached: step by methodical step. There is a seeming endless multiplicity of dishes in Indian cuisine, including exotic variations on pickles, chutneys, salads, and fried foods. And then there is the vast variety of spices--many fiercely intense--such as cardamom, chili, cinnamon, garlic, cloves, saffron, tamarind, turmeric, and cumin, folded and layered within a single creation. Curry powders, the linchpins of Indian cuisine, can incorporate as many as 20 herbs, spices, and seeds.

Even serving Indian food, much of it tied to ceremonies and celebrations, can be a beautifully complex matter. Traditional Indian meals are served on a thali, a large silver or brass salver about 2 inches deep upon which a set of serving bowls or katoris is placed. As few as three or as many as eight serving dishes--holding chutneys, salads, or sauces--are arranged in the thali.

This is the type of meal service you'll discover at Suprabhath, a Dallas offshoot of a 2-year-old restaurant in Houston featuring South Indian vegetarian cuisine. Instead of silver or brass thalis, Suprabhath serves its meals in stainless steel trays and dishes. Even the marsala tea, a blend of tea, sugar, milk, and a little cardamom, is served in a stainless steel cup and saucer, a service detail that can be torturous on the fingertips.

Interestingly, the mango shake, a deliciously refreshing blend of milk, mango pulp, sugar, and ice, is served in a Styrofoam cup.

Yet Suprabhath's menu is loaded with authentically prepared items, including dosai (thin pancakes), breads, and rice dishes. And everything, from the salads and chutneys to the fried pastries, is fresh and articulately assembled.

The only deviation from this standard was the saffron rice with peas, carrots, and mushrooms. Offered on the lunch buffet, this dish was little more than a pasty wad.

Yet everything else was a pummeling of beatitudes. The vegetable pakora sampler--a selection of battered and deep-fried spinach, onion, eggplant, green pepper, and potato--was clean and crisp without a hint of grease. A modest spice heat on the finish complemented the vegetables rather than masked them, while sides of sambar (a sauce with tamarind and tomato) and coconut chutney for dipping amplified the flavors.

Madras thali is a meal served on the traditional large stainless steel platter carpeted with a banana leaf. The centerpiece of the meal features a choice of dosai, idly (steamed rice cakes), and vadai (deep-fried spicy lentil patty) surrounded by numerous stainless steel dishes holding chutneys, sauces, and vegetables. The dosai, a light crepe, was crisp and firm without sponginess. It was stuffed with a filling of potato, onion, turmeric, and ginger--moist innards with a subtle tang and liveliness.

A side of rice was slightly overcooked and dry. But a pastry, described as an Indian nacho, was light, crunchy, and coated with a little oil. The ring of small dishes--all fresh and vibrant--included lentils with onion and tomato; a tangy tamarind sauce; squash with coconut, potato, and curry; eggplant with peas, corn, and spices; cauliflower, peas, and potato; shredded carrot and green beans; coconut chutney; a spicy tamarind sauce; and a dessert with egg and cashew.

Masala dosai with vadai and idly came with a huge 2-foot crepe filled with a potato mixture. The long pancake shared thali space with a moist, fluffy, and slightly tangy fermented rice dumpling as well as a light, delicately crisp lentil donut--like an elegantly savory hush puppy.

Other highly successful concoctions included a delicately sweet dish consisting of shredded carrot, raisins, and brown sugar; a sharp, lively salad of pickled lemon with poppy seeds laced with seasonings that sparked the tang with subtle spice heat; and a warm, nutty eggplant salad with peas and poppy seeds.

Suprabhath is tucked in a modest Campbell Shopping Plaza strip slot in Richardson. The techy deco decor includes tables laminated with a thick black lacquer and gold, ivory, and black lacquer chairs over a black and white checkerboard linoleum tile floor. The space is piped with music heavily peppered with tabla and sitar.

In looking over the receipts from my meals at Suprabhath, it's amazing that the most expensive visit was under $30 for three. It's hard to come up with a more provocative dining experience, even at four times the price.

While the compellingly exotic nature of Suprabhath's cuisine elevates the entire experience beyond its somewhat clumsy atmospherics, the food at Shalimar possesses no such redeeming virtue. Shoehorned into an aging Richardson strip mall (Richardson Heights Village), the place is a little ratty. It's soaked in pink (walls and tablecloths) and crusted with worn paneling and tattered carpeting, while the bar in the rear is barren and disheveled.

Palwinder Kaur purchased Shalimar, in operation in Dallas for roughly 10 years, some three months ago from Feteh Javed, the restaurant's owner for the last five years. Ms. Kaur retained most of the staff and left the menu, speckled with dishes from northern and southern India, largely intact.

Shalimar features a daily lunch buffet that, like most smorgasbords, suffers from a relentless steam-table drubbing. Aside from taking some of the wait out of the dining experience, these food-service setups have the added benefit of predigesting your food before it ever passes your lips.

The mattar paneer, peas in a sauce with Indian cheese charged with spices, is a prime example of this. The crowded mass of chickpeas in this soupy cheese gravy was overcooked, rendering them Gerber-soft and mushy. The whole thing could have been sucked through a wide straw without chewing.

And the buffet's soup of the day, dubbed Madras, tasted suspiciously like Campbell's tomato soup, albeit in Indian-spice drag. Vegetable pakora was dry and greasy with a soft coating void of crispness or crunch.

But there were some moderate successes strapped to this torture table. Beef mushroom, a stewy slop holding chewy, fibrous dry beef, was spiked with seasonings that suffused it in an aromatic earthiness. And chicken tandoori, a collection of barbecued clucker thighs and legs seasoned with garlic, chili powder, ginger, and yogurt, was mostly moist, but far too much of it was dry and chewy with a slightly off, lost-in-the-back-of-the-refrigerator flavor. Curry chicken, however, was sunk in a provocative sauce and was moist and chewy through and through.

Plucking from the menu instead of the buffet was a bit more rewarding. Things start with papad, crispy lentil wafers zapped with black pepper and other spices coupled with a pair of sauces for dipping. These lentil shingles were light with a delicate crunch.

Perhaps the most successful item on the menu was the refreshingly clean, hearty chicken chat, a chilled salad with moist, tender chicken chunks; crisp hunks of cucumber; and moist potato in cleanly vibrant, spicy tamarind sauce.

The rest of the menu faded dismally from there. Garlic naan, actually an Indian pita bread, was moist but had that odd, synthetic flavor often characteristic of chopped garlic from a jar. Samosa with chole, fried turnovers stuffed with potato and spicy chickpeas, would have been a big hit had they not been anchored in a big gooey swamp of curry yogurt and tamarind chutney.

Lentil soup with chicken and rice had a good, rich flavor, but the lentils and rice were cooked into a plodding muddiness, adding silt to the swampy tone vigorously set with the previous item.

And then there is the potent example of miscued billing. The menu boasts that the lamb saagwala possesses succulent pieces of lamb cooked with spinach and spices. But the meat was dry and mealy with precious little flavor. Plus, the pasty, pulverized spinach tasted as though it had been unceremoniously yanked from a can in undignified clumps.

Shrimp curry had prawns that were firm and moist. But the beasts were saddled with a distinct taste resembling bar soap. Some pieces were mushy and overcooked, while the curry sauce lacked clean freshness, and the flavors with muddled instead of specific.

Shalimar isn't a disaster, just underachieving. Metaphorically illustrating this stumble is the bowl filled with fennel seeds dotted with tiny Tic-Tac-like candies placed near the entrance. A spoon is buried in the depths of the grains.

Fennel seeds are often spooned into the palm and eaten at the conclusion of Indian meals as a breath freshener and digestive aid. But these seeds were dry and coarse, stripped of any herbal potency. There's something harshly ironic about a dismally stale herb offered as a breath freshener.

Suprabhath.581 West Campbell ShoppingPlaza, #127, Richardson;(972) 437-9727.Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday;open for dinner 6:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.$-$$


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