December 28, 2007

South India to West China: two hot new ethnic spots

You don’t have to be as old as the (Tuscan) hills to remember the days when “Northern” Italian fare first became a local craze, serving dishes like fettuccine alfredo and veal piccata. Before long, “Northern” was in, “Southern” was out, and to this day, as much as we may still love pizza and spaghetti with meatballs and other hearty red-sauced Italian comfort food, we don’t think of it as, well, upscale anymore.    Now get ready to broaden your culinary horizons with a couple more ethnic compass points. Two fine new restaurants are breaking new ground for Louisville with exotic, spicy South Indian and West Chinese cuisine.    Red Pepper Chinese Cuisine is the latest tenant in the Moorish-looking building on Brownsboro Road that has housed a string of short-lived eateries since the four-star Shariat’s closed in 2003. Now the domain of a skilled Sichuanese chef who arrived recently from Chicago’s Chinatown, it’s no mere chopsticks house but a classy restaurant offering both familiar Chinese-American dishes and a much more interesting “authentic Chinese” menu.    Royal India joins a growing strip of restaurants that is turning the blocks of Oechsli and Sears avenues (“where the old Sears used to be”) in St. Matthews into yet another restaurant row. It joins Havana Rumba, Del Frisco’s, Equus and Café Lou Lou within a two-block stretch, making it profoundly difficult to decide where in this neighborhood to dine. We’ve been so smitten with Royal India’s food and service in several visits that I’m inclined to rank it my current Indian favorite. In addition to a wide selection of relatively familiar Northern Indian dishes, it’s also currently the only place in town where you can find the tasty vegetarian cuisine of Southern India.    Royal India’s good-size dining rooms are attractively decorated with pale green walls and bright paintings of Indian village scenes. Tables are draped in white and set with attractive mahogany chairs. Authentic Indian music plays quietly in the background.     The menu includes a remarkable selection of main dishes — 46 meatful dinners and 16 vegetarian choices — ranging from $8.99 (for many veggie dishes) to $13.99 (for shrimp or lamb biryani). The lunch menu offers about 15 items, mostly $5.99 or $6.99 including rice.    A pair of half-moon pappadams, crispy and grease-free lentil wafers, were served as a complimentary appetizer with a dish of bright red, not-too-spicy onion chutney for dipping.    The “non-vegetarian” appetizer platter ($6.95) included samosas (pastry-wrapped turnovers of spicy ground lamb and tiny peas); pakoras (fingers of chicken and fish, lightly breaded and deep-fried); and Seekh kabob (a grilled, long meatball of finely minced lamb).    Dishes are spiced with a sure hand; every dish breathes elusive, exotic spices, not mouth-numbingly fiery (although they’ll gladly adjust heat to your preference), but an intriguing mix of aromatics that may seem mysterious to Western taste buds but are very easy to like. Aloo gobi ($9.50), a hearty vegetarian dish, consisted of fresh cauliflower and potato cooked with ginger, garlic, onions and spices, accompanied by a plate of perfect, tender white basmati rice.    Shrimp biryani ($13.99) is an Indian version of pilaf or paella, a festive dish made in a flat pan, tender rice colored a deep reddish brown with spices, loaded with small, perfectly cooked peeled shrimp and chunks of green pepper, with flavor bursts of crunchy cashews and sweet raisins. Ordered “a little hotter than medium,” it was spicy enough to make sweat break out on my brow, just the way I like it.     Spinach nan ($2.75) was a tender, tandoori-grilled white flatbread stuffed with spicy steamed spinach, and raita ($2) was a cooling blend of finely chopped cucumber, bell pepper and creamy yogurt.    Kulfi (Indian ice cream, $2.75) boasted an exotic dairy-and-spice flavor; it was served in small cubes with slivered almonds. Kheer (Indian rice pudding, $2.75) is one of my favorites, subtle and delicately flavored cooked rice in cream with chopped pistachios.    Another day, a South Indian lunch began with complimentary cups of warming, thick mulligatawny soup, a rich, gently spicy lentil and vegetable puree.     The classic South Indian brunch dish, masala dosa, comes on a $10.95 combo plate with idlys and sambar. Masala dosa is a plate-size, crisp and thin lentil crepe, folded in thirds over spicy curried potatoes with cilantro. Idlys are fat, silver-dollar size dumplings made from rice flour; and sambar is a thick, “meaty” vegetarian lentil soup; it’s best served poured over the idlys in a cup with a dab of the accompanying sweet-hot coconut green chutney. Another Southern Indian dish, anche gare ($7.95), is best described as “lentil doughnuts,” four small, mini-bagel-size rounds of chewy lentil dough flavored with onions and chile peppers, deep-fried and served with sambar and coconut chutney.     Service on both visits was cordial and friendly; the outgoing proprietor takes obvious joy in explaining Indian dishes to Westerners and demonstrating how to eat them.    With a salty lassi yogurt drink and a Taj Mahal beer, a filling dinner, with plenty of leftovers to box up and take home, was $52.59, plus a $15 tip. The vegetarian brunch, with two lassis, was $26.99 and a $6.01 tip.Royal India4123 Oechsli Ave.896-0025    Red Pepper has made little decor change in the multiply re-used Shariat’s; about the only difference I could spot in the dining room was a pretty, bright-red-bell-pepper color painted around the recessed ceiling. The Chinese-American menu offers a wide selection of more than 100 familiar dishes, with most entrees from $6.95 to $12.95. About 50 lunch dishes are mostly $5.50 to $5.95.    If there’s a breath of adventure in your soul, though, ask for the “authentic Chinese” menu. Even if you pass on such goodies as pig intestine or beef tendon (both of which are available in a variety of preparations), or such oddly translated items as “unique chicken smell” and “mouth watered chicken,” you’ll find plenty of less challenging choices, including:    Pan-fried tofu ($7.95) consisted of pressed bean curd rectangles, chewy on the outside and creamy within, coated in a dark, sweet-hot soy-based sauce garnished with sliced leeks, on a bed of fresh spinach.    “Dried chicken and spicy taste with hot pot” ($10.95) was served over a flame in a mini-wok containing bite-size, chewy chunks of boneless chicken, red and green bell pepper, earthy Chinese black beans, slices of garlic and chunks of fresh ginger, fired up with at least a dozen hot chile peppers in a thin, spicy reddish-brown soup.    An oversize portion of fresh spinach ($6.95) was wok-fried until just barely wilted, with enough garlic to keep Dracula at bay.    It was so good that we had to go back for dinner, and the chef knocked our socks off again. The aforementioned “Unique Chicken Smell” ($4.25, actually “Strange Flavor Chicken,” according to my Chinese-English dictionary) proved delicious, not strange: Bite-size chunks of chicken backs and legs simmered in a fiery red broth with peanuts and scallions. Cumin lamb ($12.95), a West China specialty, featured pieces of marinated lamb stir-fried with red and green bell peppers and onions in a fiery, aromatic sauce of chile oil and earthy cumin seed. Stir-fried sliced fish ($10.95) was subtle and delicate — yin to the lamb’s yang — tender white fish stir-fried with pea pods, water chestnuts, scallions and fresh tomato in a light, white sauce.    With excellent Chinese green tea and perfect white rice, both meals were around $30, plus 20 percent tips. I’m planning to make Red Pepper a regular stop.Red Pepper Chinese Cuisine2901 Brownsboro Road891-8868Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com