Shahi Dawat exists for our pleasure

As I"ve mentioned before several times in these pages, Indian cuisine has always held a special place in my culinary heart and stomach. Coming from the Industrial Midlands of central England, with its vast expatriate Asian population, I have always been beguiled by Indian food, with its complexity and range of flavors. With its exotic spices and subtle textures, the Indian cuisine of my youth would often linger for days in a most unusual and evocative manner. For whatever reason, Indian cuisine still isn"t truly appreciated on these shores. This is a shame, really, because this is some of the most subtle and sophisticated cooking on the planet, deriving as it does from centuries of experimentation in a vast range of regional styles. Each part of the country has its own classic signature dishes. Fortunately for us, restaurants like Shahi Dawat have taken the best and most readily understood of these regional creations and have brought them here for our pleasure. From rich vegetable stews to slow-cooked lamb and beef, there"s something here for everyone.

There are many misconceptions here about the true nature of Indian food, just as there are misconceptions about true Mexican cuisine. 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 rabid night on the town. Where I come from it"s not unusual to finish an evening of competitive beer-swilling with a jolly fine vindaloo and a crackling onion bahjee. The underlying motive for this kind of masochistic behavior is presumably that the sheer pain of a sweat-inducing vindaloo will chase away the evils of drink. I"m not sure about the logic behind this kind of activity, but it would appear to work for some.

This, however, is only the tip of the culinary iceberg. The finest Indian food provides just the perfect combination of rich spice and tolerable heat. The principal spices - cardamom, coriander, cumin and turmeric, as well as liberal dashes of garlic, ginger and cinnamon - combine to create a textural and aromatic intensity quite independent of the heat supplied by the obligatory chili peppers. Unlike, say, certain incarnations of Tex-Mex cookery, Indian food does not rely solely upon heat for its impact. That"s what makes it so subtle, sophisticated and thoroughly intoxicating if you"re in the mood. Many of the Indian restaurants I"ve explored in the past have put most of their energy into drawing sweat from your brow. Luckily for us, most of this town"s eateries do not fall into that category.

Based upon a recent visit to Shahi Dawat, incongruously located just north of Greenwood, as well as several visits with an Indian friend who knows about such things, I can safely state that this restaurant is the finest in Indianapolis in this category. The flavors are largely uncompromising, and do not tend to pander towards perceptions of local tastes. Ingredients are fresh and bright, and the various preparations are classical in their execution.

Although the atmosphere isn"t exactly scintillating, it"s not too dull either: at least there are some traditional paintings dotted around and the atmosphere is generally cheery. The staff, for the most part extremely affable southern Indians, do their best to make you comfortable with their cuisine. "Have you ever dined at an Indian restaurant before?" they will ask, and will then proceed to explain in detail all the subtleties, beginning with the crisp papadums and three accompanying chutneys that are served at the start of each meal.

To begin our meal, my friend and I ordered the plate of vegetable pakora ($2.95), a generous assortment of cauliflower, zucchini, potato and other vegetables dipped in chick pea batter and deep fried. This is served with sweet and savory chutneys for dipping. The texture of these pakoras was quite excellent: soft inside, slightly crisp outside, with the vegetables perfectly cooked but not overdone. Two large meat samosas ($3.95) were also ordered. These substantial triangular pastry cases stuffed with spicy ground lamb were almost a meal in themselves.

Being apparently incapable of escaping my favorite dishes these days, my friend and I went on to order the Rogan Josh ($10.95) and the Chicken Vindaloo ($10.95), as well as a vegetarian dish, the shahi mala kofta ($9.95).

Rogan Josh is a spicy and rich red lamb stew from Kashmir, which is not generally hot, but is intensely rich and aromatic. It is prepared with lots of garlic, onion, coriander, cardamom and plenty of paprika for color. The version we sampled at Shahi Dawat was one of the best I"ve had recently: aromatic, filling (there"s quite a bit of yogurt in the sauce) and thoroughly satisfying. If you"re on the lookout for new ways to prepare lamb, this one"s well worth the effort. It"s a great way to use surplus leg of lamb, or even to cook a stringy old leg of mutton if it"s too big to use for anything else.

The Chicken Vindaloo was a knockout. One of the essential ingredients in this dish is vinegar, which imparts a sour heat that completely sets it apart from most other hot dishes. Examples I"ve tasted recently have been lacking in this department, products of kitchens afraid to break a sweat on their customers" brows. This one was rich, spicy and zingy, but by no means painful.

The vegetable dish, again a meal in itself, consisted of vegetable and cheese balls served in a rich and creamy sauce. Less hot than the other dishes, this still had more than enough spice and flavor to satisfy all but the most jaded palates. To accompany these dishes, we ordered the excellent, if a little sweet, Kashmiri Naan, which is a flat naan bread stuffed with pineapple, cherries, almonds and raisins then baked in the tandoor clay oven. We also opted for the Alu Paratha, which is a whole wheat bread stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes, and is somewhat thinner and more stretchy than the naan.

For dessert, I can highly recommend the kulfi, a sort of ice cream made from condensed milk, almonds, pistachios and cardamom pods. This is most refreshing and typical to several regional Indian cuisines. There is also a version made with mangoes: This is very fine indeed. Several traditional Indian desserts are offered here, but this one still remains my favorite. Firmer in texture than regular ice cream, kulfi appears not to have been churned for very long, causing it to set harder.

A short wine and beer list is available in addition to teas and traditional soft drinks. Shahi Dawat gets my nod as best Indian restaurant in town, and is well worth the long drive south.

Shahi Dawat

8735 S. U.S. 31

884-0901

Monday-Thursday

11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Friday-Saturday

5-10 p.m.

Food : 3 1/2 stars

Atmosphere : 2 1/2 stars

Service : 3 1/2 stars

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