An Indian Feast

by Alona Abbady Martinez

Think of India and the mind fills with colors, aromas, and flavors as rich and varied as the subcontinent itself. In a country of over 1.3 billion people, the story of its cuisine goes back thousands of years with plenty of influences brought by Arab and Portuguese traders during the sixteenth century: like chili peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes. And later squash, cauliflower and carrots, first introduced during the colonial British rule. 

For many years, Indian cuisine did not get the spotlight it deserved here in South Florida. Luckily, an upsurge in interest in the seemingly endless play on flavors (including extensive offerings for vegetarians) has changed that. Here are two South Florida Indian hotspots, one on the more elegant scale, the other a more casual environment. Regardless of the ambiance, both are producing exceptional experiences that keep guests coming.

Maska

Set in the heart of Midtown Miami, Maska, helmed by acclaimed Chef Hemant Mathur, opened its doors last December to much excitement. Mathur is the first Indian chef in the U.S. to be awarded a Michelin star (for both of his New York restaurants, Devi and Tulsi) and is excited to make his mark on the burgeoning South Florida culinary scene. 

The chic spot basks in elegant hues of turquoise and gold, accented with chandeliers and sultry art, all meant to evoke a feeling of contemporary meets classic, with dishes to complement. Chef Mathur, who is known as “the Yo-Yo Ma of tandoor cooking,” works his magic with starters like dosa tacos (crunchy, light, rice crepes with pulled duck), octopus masala served with a rice pancake and dill yogurt, and Lucknowi galauti kebab (lamb kebabs with cilantro aioli). Tandoor specialties include Chef Hemant’s lamb chops, tandoori prawns, as well as Maine lobster. Be sure to save room for Maska chicken, the restaurant’s signature butter chicken dish, smoked lal maas (goat curry, cucumber salad, and paratha, a bread fried in a tawa, or stone frying pan) or kaddu ke kofte, summer squash dumplings, onion and tomato sauce and cumin rice. Desserts are equally fabulous with visually stunning and unique offerings like paan ice cream, presented on a betel leaf with a sprinkle of paan masala (a herb, nut, and seed mixture). There is also an array of fun cocktails with equally amusing names: Yellow Yellow Dirty Fellow is made with mezcal, yellow chartreuse, yellow curry syrup and lime while The Dirty Picture features Shochu lemongrass, cointreau, lychee, prosecco, and lemon juice.

For those craving a less formal experience, CHO:TU, Maska’s more casual counterpart, is right next door. The focus is Indian street food with samplings like dahi vada, (lentil fritters, with yogurt and tamarind chutney), lamb samosa, and medu vada, savory lentil doughnuts served with coconut chutney and lentil curry.

Arun’s Indian Kitchen 

Drive slowly as you pass the nondescript row of strip malls lining busy Sample Road in the Broward suburb of Coral Springs otherwise you may just miss the pocket-sized Indian restaurant worthy of a stop. Squeezed between a soon-to-open ice cream parlor and a math and reading center, this northern Indian eatery percolates with a steady stream of food delivery folk entering and exiting balancing multiple takeout bags emanating enticing aromas. It may take some patience (or luck) to get a table, as there are only five inside. Not to worry, the wait will give you an opportunity to study the diverse and lengthy menu. The system is a simple one: walk up to the pocket-sized counter up front, place your order, pay, and head back to your table. Make sure to ask for a mango lassi, which you’ll grab from the beverage cooler bumping against your side. Once seated, do not fret for too long on the miniscule map of India oddly misplaced among impressionist-style prints of saxophone and trombone players circa 1985. You don’t come here for ambiance, you come here for the food. Which arrives, by the way, almost as soon as you sit down.

You’ll be given a large plastic square plate and cutlery—all that is needed to navigate through extraordinary flavors created by chef/owner Arun Sareen. Sareen had been mulling over the idea of offering good Indian food “just how my grandmother made for me” here in the U.S. for 19 years, nurturing his dream with culinary experience until he was able to open the casual eatery in 2014.

Guests can enjoy appetizers like the vegetable samosa and dal soup as well as traditional favorites like chicken tikka masala, dal makhani, and shrimp madras. There is also piping hot Indian bread, like garlic naan. For spice level, diners choose how hot they’d like their dish, something Sareen felt was a key component in getting those not familiar with Indian food comfortable trying it out.

“Indian food typically is considered spicy and hot, that simply means that a lot of people do not want to risk their taste buds for flavor, so I was certain that the day I start my restaurant, I will give my guests an option to choose the amount of spiciness they prefer.” The proof is in the palak paneer, one may say, as hordes of fans from all backgrounds descend upon this hotspot come lunch and dinner time.“The idea of doing one thing right and delivering it with love and utmost care was appreciated and supported by our lovely customers. I deeply feel my restaurant is just an extension of myself—we cook like we would cook for our family.” 

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