As you walk through the door of Mughlai, the year-old restaurant tucked in a strip on Alpha Road just north of the Galleria, you may not recognize the space as distinctly Indian. "Are those fajitas?" your dining guest might ask as you watch a screaming-hot cast-iron skillet as it's whisked through the dining room, trailing smoke and steam.
The sizzling plate holds a bed of onions, sure, but the meat has emerged from a tandoor oven and goes far beyond chicken, steak and shrimp combinations. There are lamb kebabs in chops and ground versions; chicken, on the bone or off; and paneer, an Indian cheese, threaded on skewers with mixed vegetables. The basket on the side sports freshly baked naan from the same oven, and small dishes are filled with pickled mango and raita (a seasoned yogurt dish) instead of guacamole and salsa.
Based on that steaming plate it's no wonder why a waitress here would casually refer to the kebabs as Indian fajitas, but the description does the family of dishes a disservice. They're far better. Mughlai's tag line, "fine Indian cuisine," for once under-delivers. It's perhaps the finest in Dallas.
That's a bold statement considering the significant Indian population here. The suburbs of Irving and Arlington boast scores of small cafes serving curries, kebabs, rice and breads, but they're often served on Styrofoam plates. The food is satisfying and cheap, but it's also heavy and oily, and if you're looking for a picturesque space for a date, you'll need to look elsewhere. Most are as romantic as a suburban doughnut shop.
Mughlai's dining room won't transport you to Northern India, where most Indian restaurants (this one included) derive the cores of their menus, but it's a world away from your standard strip-mall dive. Tables clad in white linen pop against the burgundy window treatments in a dining room that's a little boring, but the subtle backdrop is the perfect stage for outstanding Indian food with influences that reach from Pakistan east to Bengal, and from Kashmir past Goa to the south.
If you want your food spicy, be assertive. The staff raises an eyebrow when a new customer requests extra heat, but trust your gut. Most items here are incapable of inducing ulcers or even a sweat, and adventurous diners will be rewarded with dishes that awaken the palate.
Order the murgh saagwala "Indian hot" and receive tender chicken thighs cut from the bone and swimming in a forest-green spinach stew. You'll hunt for every last morsel of poultry before using bread to mop up the fresh vegetable puree. Try the bhindi masala too, which is more of a stir-fry than a saucy curry, but the okra is vibrant and supported with tomatoes and onions in a dish that will banish slimy, over-cooked versions from your mind forever.
Sample the chana pindi if you're craving legumes simmered in a sauce that's spiced like Christmas. Cinnamon, cardamom and ginger take the reins in this curry of chickpeas that evokes the spice trade that pushed these flavors across Asia and Europe. If you'd like something richer, a dal makhani makes use of similar flavors on a backdrop of soft black lentils enriched with a hefty dose of cream.
While most Indian restaurants use lamb extensively, goat is actually a more popular meat back in India. At Mughlai, the masaledar goat shines as brightly as a Kashmir sapphire. The tender meat is cooked and left on the bone for a rich and flavorful curry. Pick up a tender morsel with your hands or a piece of bread and tear in.
If you want more piquancy, move southward to dishes from Goa and order a fiery lamb vindaloo that's bright with vinegar and rusty with chili powder and cumin. This is, perhaps, the one dish those with timid palates should think twice about before ordering extra spicy, since it's plenty hot on its own. Shrimp curries from the south, including a Goan version swimming with coconut milk and a more potent jhinga masala Nizami, are finished with fresh ginger and herbs that explode with flavor when crushed with your teeth.
Mughlai is owned by Sonia Khan and her husband, Javeed, who moved to Dallas for unrelated work in 2009 and opened their restaurant with the help of Sonia's father, Satish Mehtani. The Mehtani group is responsible for a handful of restaurants that dot the Northeast from New Jersey to Boston. Among his restaurants is Ming in Edison, New Jersey, which earned a favorable write-up in The New York Times in 2004.
Mehtani helped his daughter get Mughlai off the ground, sending three cooks to help ensure the food served here was as good as the food plated at the rest of the restaurants in his growing mini-empire.
On nearly all fronts they're succeeding. The curries, kebabs and rice dishes all sing with intense spices and aren't oily or heavy. The stews are thick and rich, but a big meal won't weigh you down like it will at more casual Indian restaurants.
If anyone were to seriously liken this food to home cooking they'd be hunted by an angry mob of Indian families who hold the cooking of their mothers in the highest regard. Let's say instead that if you were to find a well-written cookbook and you followed the recipes carefully, and you were a very good cook, your efforts might come close to what's served at Mughlai.
Fried appetizers, though, are less appealing. Pakoras coat mixed vegetables in a flour of ground chickpeas and are deep fried without becoming oily, but the finished dish is bland and lifeless. Same for the samosas, which boast an intensely spiced potato and pea mixture but still don't work as well as they could with the pastry. Skip these starters and dive right into the kebabs and curries and be sure to order plenty of naan and rice to go around the table.
Yes, you have to order rice and bread as a side, which is a little disappointing considering the curries can run as high as $22, but the portions are large and easily shared. Each curry is presented in a small copper karahi with a spoon for serving. Get as many dishes as will fit on your table (and the tables here are generous) along with an order or two of rice or bread and start sharing. This is how many Indians eat at home. And Indian mothers be damned — the food at Mughlai is just as good.