Indian cuisine is one of the most subtle and complicated on the planet. It can also be some of the most assertive and abrasive, depending upon who"s preparing it. Over the past few weeks, I have found myself drawn inexorably to several of the finest Indian dining spots in town, probably in the hope of generating a bit of temperature-lowering sweat, as well as enjoying a jolly good feed at a very reasonable price. In case I haven"t abundantly overstated the case in previous reviews, Indian restaurants represent some of the best value around, and this town has a surprisingly large number of excellent and authentic establishments that should satisfy even the most jaded of palates.
There can be no other cuisine in the world that is so richly represented here in such an authentic fashion. Although some establishments persist in the unnecessary practice of toning down their flavors and using excessive cream in an effort to pander to their perception of the Midwestern palate, the better places are serving it up just as it should be. If, that is, I can trust my Indian friends who profess expertise in the subject. Certainly, the quality of Indian food in this market has increased by leaps and bounds over the past decade, even if prices have remained stable.
I am constantly amazed and impressed by the sheer diversity of culinary styles offered at the city"s finer Indian establishments - although on the surface one might be tempted to believe that all of that great nation"s cooking is one homogeneous lump, nothing could be further from the truth. Even dishes bearing the same name can be subject to numerous different preparations. Although a dish like, say, Rogan Josh is of necessity made with lamb and ginger, it is subject to an almost infinite number of local variations, and can range in color from a pale orange to a deep red, and in spice from mildly warming to virtually searing.
For me, this makes dining at Indian restaurants a rather exciting proposition. You never know exactly what you are going to get. At a recent visit to Heera, I got a bit of a surprise. Specifically, I had a couple of the hottest dishes I"ve yet had in this town, and one of the most exquisite chutneys I"ve ever set eyes or mouth upon. More of which later.
For many diners, Indian food is all too often associated with heat. Certainly, it can be hot, and can induce the sort of sweating that either lowers the body temperature on a sultry day or helps flush the body of toxins after a boozy night on the town. The finest Indian food provides just the perfect combination of rich spice and balancing heat, the sort that brings a smile to your face but doesn"t have you reaching for the iced water pitcher every 30 seconds. At Heera, the friendly and accommodating staff make well-informed recommendations regarding the heat of each dish, something I found quite useful, especially when one has a masochistic (and not to say macho) tendency to dive in headlong and order everything spicy. That sort of behavior usually leads to a lot of unfinished dishes and some painful bathroom visits.
Inauspicious outside, Heera is pretty unprepossessing inside, as well, although the food and service more than make up for the decor. It"s typical of this kind of establishment to let the food do the talking, rather than invest a fortune in fancy but otherwise superfluous interior design. On the walls, simplicity reigns, while on the plate, entirely the opposite is true.
Ordering a couple of large beers, my friend Hermione and I started off the evening with a truly outstanding vegetable samosa ($2.50 for two) and an order of eggplant pakora ($3 for six pieces). The samosas were large, crisp on the outside and packed with a rich and spicy paste of cooked vegetables. These were almost a meal in themselves. The pakora, semi-circular slices of eggplant dipped in chick pea batter and deep-fried, were as good as I"ve eaten, especially when dipped into either tamarind or green coriander chutney. The consistency of the batter is key to the success of this dish: In this instance, it is slightly crisp on the outside, but still spongy within - a difficult balancing act and a fine display of timing.
Next came a pretty standard salad, which I ignored in the fear that the ounce or two of greens might cause me to lose my appetite for the main courses. When they arrived, the entrees were really very fine. Priced at $9.95, the vegetarian dishes are a tremendous value, and very filling. We ordered a superb aloo gobi, a dish of cauliflower and potatoes served in a moderately spicy sauce. This was wonderfully aromatic and rich. A fish tandoori ($12.95) was a masterpiece of simplicity: six generous chunks of salmon steak cooked in the ferociously hot tandoor clay oven until lightly seared on the outside, but a deliciously moist pink within. Served without sauce and with a couple of lemon wedges and steamed rice, this was the very essence of delicious.
In addition to these dishes, we ordered the enormous shrimp biryani dish ($13.95). This must have included a dozen or so decent-sized shrimp in a steaming plate of fragrant basmati rice, well-seasoned and with a generous bowl of creamy, aromatic sauce on the side for mixing. Between the two of us, these three dishes were excessive by a factor of about 100 percent. In addition, we ordered an excellent aloo paratha, a flat bread stuffed with potatoes; and an assortment of chutneys, including a sweet mango and a spicy mango made in-house. The manager gleefully brought a tiny sample of this to our table with a disturbingly knowing look on his face, as if to say, "So, you think you like hot food, eh?" Well, it was startling, I must say. Made with fiendishly hot little red peppers, one small bite had me reaching for my beer and iced water in pretty quick succession. This was followed by the brief but not unpleasant impression that I was about to pass out and slide gracelessly to the ground. The feeling subsided, however, and, having regained the use of my voice, we went on with our meal.
Unfortunately, we did not leave ourselves room for desserts, which consist of four traditional selections, including rice pudding and mango ice cream. That"s a pleasure I shall have to defer until my next visit to this excellent and reasonably-priced little establishment.
Heera3516 W. 86th St.
5-9 Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday;
Food : 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere : 2 1/2 stars
Service : 3 1/2 stars