Days after the recent attacks in Mumbai, which heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, I found myself in Shahi Kitchen, an Indian-Pakistani-Bengali restaurant in a former Aunt Sarah's Pancake House on West Broad Street. Only vestiges of its previous incarnation remain, and certainly the intense smells and tastes that permeate the air and assault the senses leave no doubt that you've entered another world. The syrup has become chutney, and the griddle a tandoor oven.
The blend of cross-border traditions reminds us how Indian cuisine is woven from centuries of geographic, ethnic and religious influences. Its cultural and gastronomic traditions impart a richness and diversity of tastes, cooking methods and language. Shahi means royalty, a fact that is spelled out on Shahi Kitchen's colorful logo and sign. It's also how guests are treated. No red carpets are unrolled, but visitors are met with warm smiles and greetings and an even lovelier gift of tasty naan bread, hot from the tandoor oven. The combination sets a definitive tone of welcome.
After 20 years of traveling with clients to Washington, D.C., for Indian meals, owner and real-estate developer Barketali Kabani recruited five chefs from outside Richmond to build this new venture, a welcome addition to Richmond's culinary landscape. At dinner on a Sunday evening the restaurant buzzed with intergenerational energy and a predominantly Indian clientele, from small children to grandparents.
Shahi Kitchen's menu leans toward the north Indian, dairy-rich style of cuisine, which lavishes sauces and gravies with cream, cheese and yogurt. Because the owner is Muslim, the meat served is halal, prepared in accordance with Islamic code.
In two lunchtime visits, I was impressed by the range and freshness of dishes served steaming hot in a row of chafing dishes at the daily buffet. I sampled the vegetable pakora (lightly fried vegetable fritters), bindhi masala (okra sautAced in a tomato sauce), channa masala (chickpeas in tomato sauce), aloo mattar (potato and pea curry) and a vegetable biryani (basmati rice cooked with vegetables and spices).
The vegetables were more impressive than the meat: The goat with spinach had a great flavor, but shank bones hid among the greens; the chicken tandoori was flavorful but a bit dry. In many restaurants, condiments such as chutney come with a price premium, but Shahi Kitchen is generous with house-made mango and cilantro chutneys, pickles and raita.
Appetizers include wonderfully flaky samosas, stuffed with a spicy mixture of potatoes and peas, and chat papdi, a dish that combines coarse pieces of fried bread with a tangy mixture of yogurt, chick peas and potatoes.
One of the most intriguing dishes we sampled came from the kabab section of the menu — hariyali kabab, a traditional north Indian chicken dish served hot on a sizzle platter, a brilliant green from the mint, hot pepper and cilantro rub that marinates the chicken. Chicken vindaloo, one of my litmus tests in any Indian restaurant, held its own with a deep peppery heat.
Desserts include gajar halwa, a traditional rice pudding that combines shredded carrots with nuts, cream and sugar — it has a pumpkin-pie hominess about it. One day the restaurant offered a shortbread-like semolina cookie that was great with a cup of hot tea.
The owners have done a nice job of transforming Aunt Sarah's into a space that showcases the paradox of India: New window treatments and upholstery on the booths and folk-life sculpture from Rajasthan give a sense of tradition. In contrast, multiple flat-screen TVs broadcast hypnotic Bollywood videos, and free wi-fi and teleconferencing capabilities nod to the global importance of India's technology infrastructure.
There's nothing paradoxical about the food or service though. Shahi Kitchen is serious about what's being served and how guests are treated. It's worth a trip for the naan. But there's so much more. S
Shahi Kitchen ($$)
7927 W. Broad St.
Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.