The most gorgeous day of the year so far: warm and breezy, an evening for enjoying a hoppy brew or crisp grüner veltliner on a tree-shaded patio. Instead we've rolled in to a mostly empty parking lot on a dingy stretch of Page Avenue in Overland. On cue a battered cardboard box tumbleweeds past. I whistle the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and hope for the best.
Here stands the Indian restaurant Haveli, which opened in December in a squat structure that looks something like a sentinel post for the hulking restaurant-supply and furniture stores behind it. The interior is larger than it might appear from outside, the dining room holding several dozen tables and booths as well as the lunch-buffet station. The lighting is dim, the Indian music soft, the décor unremarkable. The air is a touch stuffy, and on such a beautiful day it feels as though we've been sealed inside a container.
But then the food begins to arrive. First, a complementary order of pappadam. The thin lentil wafers are served with a bright green mint chutney, the bracingly verdant, spicy flavor of which slices through the still air. We follow this with an order of vegetable samosas, two plump patties of potato and green pea. I don't know if it's proper to dip these, too, in the mint chutney, but we're addicted now and do so anyway.
By the time our entrées arrive, our brows are damp with cooling sweat, and thoughts of the weather outside are lost in a fog of spice. On this visit I've decided to apply my usual Indian-restaurant litmus test: lamb vindaloo. It arrives in the sort of brown crock in which French onion soup is served, but spooned over rice on a plate, its vermillion shade seems the brightest thing in the restaurant. The hunks of lamb are tender and flavorful, the meat's natural gaminess a natural match for the vindaloo's notes of tomato and vinegar. This isn't the hottest vindaloo I've eaten — far from it — but when I turn off my critic's apparatus for a moment, I enjoy it for what it is: simply good.
(In general, the heat level at Haveli is on the low side. Chile chicken, labeled on the menu as hot — and when ordered prompted a warning about its heat level — isn't especially so. Again, the dish of chicken, onion, green bell pepper and chiles is tasty, but those in search of authentic spiciness should insist upon it when ordering.)
Sampled after such a sharp, spicy dish as lamb vindaloo, an order of chicken makhni is like slipping into a cool bath. The tomato-cream sauce, lightly accented with a mélange of who knows how many herbs, is rich and soothing. Its initial presentation is lovely, the streaks of cream in the red sauce resembling nothing so much as the marbled fat in a piece of beef.
As at most Indian restaurants, the menu offered by chef Piara Ram — a 25-year veteran of the kitchen, much of that time spent in Dallas — is broad enough that I can hardly begin to offer a representative sampling. Aficionados of Indian cuisine will note that Haveli joins the ranks of restaurants offering goat dishes. The goat curry is excellent, complexly spiced but with the meat's distinct flavor profile — something like lamb, only gamier and richer. The meat is served in both thin, boneless strips and in chunks from which you have to gnaw the meat from the bone. (Or, if you're proper about such things, pull it from the bone with a fork.)
"Chicken 65" is an intriguing dish. Actually the flavor isn't especially distinctive: chicken, marinated with garlic and ginger, in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. Yet the texture, when I tried it, was striking, the sauce glazing the meat in the way that you normally associate with Chinese American dishes.
Of course, a wide range of vegetarian dishes are available. I'm rarely able to resist palak paneer, spinach swirled with cream and chunks of homemade farmers' cheese. Haveli's rendition tips the balance a little too much in favor of the cream, the spinach flavor there but not strong. Yet the texture is still decadently rich. Spinach fans should opt for saag chana, which pairs the green with chickpeas in an unobtrusive cream sauce.
Navratan korma is the perfect gateway drug for those who are wary of Indian cuisine because of its reputation for heat — and for those who generally don't order vegetarian dishes, Indian or otherwise. The flavor is complex but not at all spicy: mixed vegetables with the sweetness of raisins and the nutty backbeat of cashews and almonds.
The lunch buffet offers a dozen or so dishes, which varied very little among my visits. Most dishes are crowd pleasers like chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken. The latter, though flavorful, was dry when I tried it, and as I've said in this column before, those who want a tandoori dish should order it à la carte. The process just doesn't translate well to sitting around in a buffet.
Service is efficient and reserved — with the exception of owner Hema Patel, who works the floor during lunch and dinner with a smile and attention to each table. When I order a bottle of Kingfisher, the well-known Indian lager, to accompany my lamb vindaloo, she takes the time to describe three new Indian beers her distributor has added to her list and persuades me to try the Hayward 5000, a more fully flavored lager that pairs beautifully with my meal.
When we finally emerge from the restaurant into the pleasant evening, it's less like unsealing ourselves from a container than stepping out of a reverie. This, then, is the power of a good restaurant. It doesn't have to change your life or prompt epiphanic drooling. It can transport you — not simply to another place, but to a place you didn't even realize you wanted to go.