The Andhra chicken curry at Mayuri is named for Andhra Pradesh, the state on India's southeast coast that some claim offers the nation's hottest cuisine. Having yet to travel through India, I can't vouch for that statement, but I did note that while a fearsome lamb vindaloo rated two chile peppers on Mayuri's heat scale, the Andhra chicken scored three. Challenge accepted.
I'm not a masochist, I swear. Yet something about chiles — I suppose the fabled opiate effect that capsaicin causes, matching pain with a euphoric rush — compels me to order the next dish up on the heat scale, to add an extra shake of peppers, to refuse even at my flushed and coughing worst to surrender to a glass of cold milk or a scoop of ice cream.
I expected the Andhra chicken to glow and pulsate like mysterious alien goo in a sci-fi flick, but in the restaurant's dim light the curry was a shade of red no brighter or duller than the lamb vindaloo a friend had ordered. I ladled it over rice and scooped it up with thin, soft garlic naan.
It's difficult to describe a fiery dish without resorting to unpleasant physical sensations. (Do you really need to know which parts of me sweated?) Thankfully, when the dish in question is Indian, the task is easier because even the hottest curry has flavor. Consider, for example, my friend's lamb vindaloo. Here the curry packs a vinegary punch, a perfect complement to the lamb's gamy note. As that initial impression passes, you notice the meat's deeper flavors and the sauce's complex spicing, all of it tied together by a persistent heat.
In contrast, the Andhra chicken builds its fire with each bite: It begins with a sharp heat tinged with fruity sweetness and a faint tang of yogurt. The chicken and the ground nuts in the curry mellow the heat ever so slightly and give the dish as a whole a well-rounded flavor, but just when you think you've adjusted to the heat there comes another blast, the intensity almost numbing.
(A side note for the food geeks: As much as I loved the heat, I didn't finish my dish. Was the heat too much? Was I full? Yes and yes, though maybe not for the reasons you might expect. The great food-science explorer Harold McGee, in his indispensible book On Food and Cooking, notes that capsaicin raises your metabolism while possibly sending your brain a signal that you're full. "In sum," he writes, "[capsaicin] may encourage us to eat less of the meal it's in and to burn more of the calories that we do eat.")
Clearly, Andhra chicken isn't for everyone. But that's the beauty and the wonder of Indian cuisine: It has something for almost every taste, and at Mayuri you're certain to find something that tastes good.
Mayuri replaces Ruchi, an Indian restaurant that I reviewed — and loved — two years ago ("Hyderabad to the Bone," September 13, 2007). As with Ruchi, which originally opened in Kansas City, Mayuri arrives from out of town, in this case from Texas, where there are Mayuris in Dallas and Houston. The name and signage might have changed, but both the menu and the décor (or lack thereof) are largely the same. That's a plus for the food, but a minus for the look. The strip-mall storefront's spacious main dining room is drab and, on my visits, under-illuminated. A second, smaller dining room was brighter but appeared to be reserved for private parties.
As at most Indian restaurants, the menu is so lengthy that it would be impossible to offer a representative survey of dishes. Mayuri complicates the matter further because, like Ruchi before it, it provides a wide selection of food from India's south in addition to the better-known food of the north. In fact, if you visit the restaurant for its buffet lunch, you will be given a dosa, the rice-and-lentil crêpe that is one of the south's signature dishes. Its light texture and mild flavor make it an ideal vehicle for one of the many chutneys available at the buffet station.
In general Indian restaurants are an exception to the rule that even the best buffet is, at best, mediocre. Mayuri's buffet selection is impressively varied, and it already seems to have enough of a lunch following to ensure — and this is key — that dishes are replenished frequently. The buffet includes the usual suspects, like tandoori chicken, whose brick-red exterior yields tender, flavorful meat; and excellent chana masala: plump chickpeas in a sauce redolent of tomatoes, onion and coriander. Fans of saag paneer should wait for the freshest batch possible: When piping hot, the greens are especially creamy, and the large chunks of homemade cheese start to melt along your tongue.
Goat curry — available on the buffet for the curious and à la carte for the bold — is very good, exhibiting a strong note of cloves (or something like that) and a moderate heat. Goat, like lamb, has a delicious funk to its flavor that lets it sing through a stew as deeply flavored as this. Be on the lookout for bones, though.
As I said, unless you move into Mayuri, you can only scratch the surface of its menu. I tried a couple of dishes simply because I'd never had them before. Kheema masala is a dish of minced lamb with green peas in a relatively mild sauce. The combination of the sweet peas and lamb's natural flavor created a dish that was almost springlike — at the very least, brighter and more verdant than the average Indian dish.
When we asked our server for his pick among the vegetable dishes, he pointed us to bhendi masala, an okra stir-fry. The menu describes this rather unappetizingly as a "semi-dry" stir-fry, but the okra had released enough of its own liquid to be tender, if not sauce-like — crucially, it lacked the sliminess often associated with the vegetable. A mélange of spices and a pinch of heat punched up the flavor without masking okra's essence.
Service on my visits was efficient, though drink orders did take an unaccountably long time to arrive, for nothing more complicated than bottled beer and wine by the glass. A heartening moment: We happened to visit on the weekend of the Hindu festival Diwali, and our waiter brought us a complimentary celebratory dessert, a sponge cake in a thick, sweet syrup. The dessert was far sweeter than I prefer, but the syrup was so thick that it coated my mouth, finally extinguishing the lingering heat of that Andhra chicken.
Which just means I have a new challenge: Find a dish so hot that even syrup can't quell its fire.