Restaurant Reviews

Review: Bukhara Grille

You don't get the pinks or the sheers, the lavish brasses or the visages of Shiva. You don't get the busy pungent fogs of a hundred spices ground and goaded to cloak the hearty smells of protein buried deep within: lentils and lamb, shrimp and chicken. At night the Bukhara Grille kitchen, partially open, is buried deep in darkness and shadow, a faint black light glows from somewhere, silhouetting plate stacks and figures that move silently but earnestly. It's hard to know how much work goes on in the barely visible, and how much more goes in the invisible, behind the swinging doors aft. But what comes out...

Indian food—mostly—doesn't work over the great North Texas metro prairie. Things are mushy, gluey, indistinct, overcooked and desiccated; the flaws are shrouded in spices and herbs, much as our forbearers beat back their bathing-phobic scents with the craft of French perfumeries. Juices are eradicated from meat; resiliency is leached from vegetable. Everything that goes into the tandoor oven is forged and transmogrified into burlap.

Search your memory. Can you find a piece of orange chicken from a Dallas tandoor oven that didn't convince you it would make a fine piece of rope in the hands of a skilled braider? At Bukhara there was a drumstick, a moist limb from which bled a whole ragtag quilt of spice and acrid fume that hid nothing. Juices sweated clear.

Yes, Bukhara has a buffet at lunch. All Indian restaurants have a buffet at lunch, virtually. Yet Bukhara is different.

Bukhara bills itself as a home of the 400-year-old forgotten frontier cuisines of northwest and southwest India: Lucknow, the capital city of landlocked Uttar Pradesh in northwest India, the country's most populous state; and Hyderabad, the capital city of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh that hugs the Indian Ocean further south. Hyderabadi food, a blend of spicy Indian and Persian cuisines, derives its salience from rice, tamarind, coconut and chilies. Lucknow is known for its breads and kebabs fashioned with sweet spices such as saffron, clove, nutmeg and fennel.

"If I just did those two in Dallas, I could not survive," says owner Vijay Sadhu. "I've got to have curries."

Or things that behave like curries. Baluchi jeenga is grilled shrimp—the scorched shells unleash tastes of smoke here and there—in a thick, sonorous sauce composed from pulped tamarind, shrimp stock, onions and freshly roasted cumin. The sauce is lithely rich, as if it were a coconut milk or light cream derivation. Sensations cycle in a near endless succession: perfume, heat, salt, tang jolted by still more perfume.

Black lentils are cooked in a clay pot for 12 hours from the radiant heat of the tandoor oven and served in a slurry of butter, cream, ginger and garlic plus still more cumin. Hearty and richly scented, these lentils attack with a strain of heat that gently scours the back of the throat.

With this hybrid Sadhu combines the kebabs and naans (round flat breads) of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, a node along the Silk Road. He nurtures these cuisines not only because he is familiar with them, but because he sees a niche he can gouge out of the area's crop of mostly mediocre Indian kitchens. How many places don't serve tandoor chicken that is dry and frayed? The culprit is preparation. Sadhu says most Indian restaurants precook their meats before they're finished in the tandoor oven. Bukhara cooks to order, marinating his meats in cream instead of yogurt to further enhance succulence. A trained chef from Hyderabad, Sadhu has worked Indian kitchens in New York and San Francisco. He operated his own Indian restaurant—Saffron—in Milwaukee, capturing a 2004 Best Indian Restaurant award from Bon Appetit magazine.

Thus, he must be persnickety about spices. Sadhu buys only fresh, whole spices and roasts and grinds and blends them in-house. It shows in how his dishes unfurl. Samosas, turnovers stuffed with potato and green peas, are especially good: crisp, flaky and greaseless with a filling of distinct elements instead of an indistinguishable starchy mash you'd swear grows peach fuzz. Sadhu blends rice flour with wheat and adds crushed pomegranate seeds to make for crispy pastry that flakes.

Bukhara dwells in a mothballed Ali Baba restaurant in a Richardson strip mall. Its design elements speak of budget stresses. Textured walls are washed in reds and oranges and yellows fixed with paintings of garlic cloves and lemon and cucumber slices plus framed depictions of kebabs. Banquettes are blue vinyl. Above the open kitchen, lighted alcoves paved with smooth stones hold exotic vases—one alcove gone dark. Instead of sitars and microtonal vocal waverings, the sound system knocks out alt rock.

But the beat is useless. Service is slow and inattentive. You must prompt and prod, sometimes through vigorous flailing, for drinks—such as the spectacularly rich and smooth mango lassi—and entrees and dinner checks. But the greeting is fine. It begins with papadam (thin cracker flatbread) served with metal dishes of mint and sweet-sour tamarind sauce along with a salad composed of carrot planks soaked in lemon and ground mustard and leathery green chilies defanged in ice water laced with salt and turmeric. Ice water is poured in metal cups sleeved in pounded copper and somehow tastes as silty as catfish.

Tandoor naan, the Indian flatbread baked in a tandoor oven, can be moist and fluffy or scorched and brittle. But whatever the texture, it's fantastic to drag through the rich slurries soaking the grilled shrimp or the lentils or especially the nafeez palak (Bukhara's version of sag paneer), a dish of warm pulverized spinach spiced with cumin and garlic swamping spongy cubes of house-made cheese.

Mint salmon tikka, meticulous cubes of fish as dark as heavily tarnished bronze, is mush, fraying into soggy shreds instead of breaking away in rich, distinct flakes.

Lamb kebabs, juicy chunks of raciness, are slathered in a spice blend so complex and gently potent that it jams your sense of culinary discernment. Bronzed buttons of ground lamb and lentil—four of them, on a bed of shredded cabbage and carrot interspersed with shards of green bell pepper—are brittle crisp and break open to expose spongy cores of steaming fume.

Stepping down from this sensual fusillade can be daunting. Do so with mango lassi or rasmalai, house-made cheese patties soaked in saffron cream. Sadhu plans more Bukharas for the Park Cites and Plano, which could sink coffin nails in Dallas' traditional Indian travesty. For good.

Bukhara Grille, 955 E. Campbell Road, Richardson,972-437-1519. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., noon-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday;5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz