Restaurant Reviews

Tasty Diplomacy

The first set arrived at our table riddled with little pockets of grease. Pools, really, shimmering gold, some shallow, some preposterously deep. Pappadam is like horribly scarred skin with creases and sharp ripples and craggy divots carved from an adolescent scourge. These flat, fried lentil flour discs from Southern India are pimpled with pepper and cumin seeds and a good toss of salt, adding still more horror to the visual.

They're addicting like potato chips, except they're a heartier, rougher, more rustic slice of nourishment, the kind that can only come from a pea. Except for that grease. We ordered another batch (they're free). This time they were dry save for a barely perceptible sheen. Flavors thrived in the transparency.

Dawat has few, if any, foibles. Consider the palak paneer, a spinach slurry encumbered with planks of white cheese. This mush is sublime when crafted with precision, offering nurturing richness and a sophistication that feeds off of an exotic display of cumin, coriander and pepper sluiced with lemon. This seemingly simple green dish is difficult to pull off with any semblance of verve under normal Dallas Indian cuisine circumstances. Yet Dawat extracts this tongue dance from a buffet table. That's right--a buffet table.

Remarkable when you consider what Dawat is. Only you can't consider what it is, because it is a one-of-a-kind Frankenstein that has never been considered before. Dawat is an organ pulsing in a complex festooned with a name that almost screams for derision: FunAsiA. It even looks funny there in print, doesn't it? On its face, FunAsiA is a cheesy mishmash of people, cultures and shallow amusements all done up in Sam Walton hyper-mart duds.

Emerging last December from a long-ago-shuttered General Cinema multiplex, FunAsiA is divided into wings, or maybe flanks. The left flank houses Dawat, a formal banquet hall for weddings and a smaller hall with a discothèque for birthday and graduation parties. The other wing has three theaters showing a steady stream of films from Bollywood--the name coined for the Bombay-based Indian film industry that produces roughly twice as many flicks per annum as Hollywood of the boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-clash-with-disapproving-families, boy-and-girl-sing-and-dance-with-thousands-of-extras genre. But FunAsiA also features films from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Stuff that in your average cineplex and smoke it. In the middle of this complex is a concession stand, an ice cream parlor, a fast-food outlet, arcade games and an air hockey table bigger than Mark Cuban's guest house. Above it all is an advertising business and an office where a free monthly magazine is published: FunAsiA.

John Hamid, a Pakistani, says he and an Indian colleague came up with the idea for FunAsiA after they became good friends. "We were thinking, 'Why can't all people from Pakistan and India be good friends since they share the same culture?'" he asks. So they assembled 47 "founders"--doctors, engineers, CEOs, accountants--who bought shares in the dream for $100,000 a clip, adding up to roughly $6 million (some got more clips than others). This rainbow of investors hails from some 11 nations including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, the United States, the U.K., Canada, Mexico and Portugal. Richardson should make a serious play for the U.N. headquarters.

How does Dawat taste? Indian food is the neglected schnauzer of Dallas cuisine. Meats are cooked into mangy insoles. Vegetables are transformed into clove-scented wall paste. Yet it's relatively easy to get a good bowl of mulligatawny. Weird.

"This is the best," Hamid boasts. "No question." Yet his reason for reaching this conclusion is peculiar. Dawat, Hamid says, is not necessarily the best because of the food. It's the best because Dawat's founders put as much emphasis on ambience as they do on lentils.

Debatable, at the very least. A handsome slate floor, flat-screen televisions (with offerings from Bollywood), framed photos of tattooed hands in various positions and banquet hall chairs with the shipping cellophane still attached to the chair backs do little to spark gustatory thrills.

But exotic food turns that small spark into a flame. Rarely can you find a piece of chicken in a Dallas Indian restaurant with more moisture than twice-baked burlap. Except for Dawat. Chicken boti is moist bright orange nuggets with an army of flavors--lemon, coriander, garlic, ginger, cumin, garam masala (spice blend)--that seem to line up for dazzling choreography instead of a fighting formation on the tongue. The spices deeply infiltrate the meat after they're mixed in yogurt. You can see how deep they penetrate by pulling one of these nuggets apart and observing the reach of the yellow-orange stains formulated with spices and food coloring. The meat is moist with the charged breath of spice.

Makhni chicken nuggets have the same Day-Glo orange hue, but they're milder and smoother--and juicier--steeped as they are in a delicate yogurt and herb sauce. These bits of chicken dance in the mouth, slowly releasing their flavors, spreading them over the tongue and roof via meat juices--as it should be--instead of driven by sauce. But--and this again is the astounding part--this dish came from a buffet table.

There's secret buffet table execution at work here. Everything on this brunch stretch was virtually the same--that is, it wasn't assaulted, battered or otherwise rendered into some form of gasket cement or swamp film by its short residency on a steam table. Racy mottled strips of lamb shank in rich curry sauce had not a dry patch. Ravaged chicken thighs and legs, sheared bones piercing the meat here and there, were steeped in dark curry that was sliced with whole bay leaves like so many shark fins dancing in a frenzy. The meat was moist and brilliantly flavored.

Off the buffet table, fried foods didn't do what fried foods nearly always do with near unstoppable inertia: spit grease. Pakora (vegetables and potato wrapped in tumeric-stained batter), samosa (deep-fried triangular pillows stuffed with mildly spiced vegetables) and a vegetable egg roll (tightly rolled greens and carrot shavings perked with Indian spices) were all deep gold, piping-hot and supple. Ramekins of yogurt--one with cucumber and a spice scorch, the other mild with a distinct cumin footprint--were there for dipping. But these tasty appetizers needed no prodding.

Even rice, plain or adulterated, had its 15 minutes. Undulating basmati grains were firm, distinct and separate. In the matar polao, bright green peas (the menu says fresh, but I'd bet a creamy mango lassi they're frozen) stud the grayish waves of grains. Screw pine leaves and whole clove gave the rice an intense floral breath.

Hamid has installed a pair of chefs at Dawat hailing from the best hotels in Pakistan and Bombay. And he might be onto something here: Cooking and noshing might succeed where diplomacy has failed. Any effort that makes a buffet table sing is sure to mute decades of border fighting.

1210 E. Belt Line Road, Richardson, 972-889-8000. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. for Sunday brunch. Open for dinner 6:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 6:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $-$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz