If Chinese food is almost as much about texture as taste, we believe that Indian food is almost as much about aroma as taste.
That struck us as we were enjoying a meal at Haveli, a new Indian restaurant that's an offshoot of Bombay Grill in O'Fallon, MO. Owner Hema Patel has brought her chef, Piara Ram, closer to the city, and Mrs. Patel herself was on hand the nights we visited. Her presence, as she answers questions and describes dishes, is a nice change from some of the dour-faced servers we've had at other Indian restaurants, here and in other cities.
She starts diners off with papadum, the crisp lentil wafers that have a touch of cilantro here and there, and the Haveli papadum are tightly rolled into a narrow cylinder, almost like a tan napkin that spreads crumbs when squeezed. They're accompanied by two dipping sauces, called chutneys, with a sweet-tart brown tamarind and a particularly tasty cilantro, bright and citrusy, different from any we've had. And since it's been soup weather recently, a bowl of dal soup, dal being the orange lentils that turn yellow when cooked, was just the thing. Light rather than sludgy, it was steamy hot and satisfying with bits of vegetable dotted throughout, and with its tantalizing scent wafting upwards.
One of the nice things about Haveli's appetizers is that not everything is deep-fried. Plenty of pakoras and samosas, the vegetables and stuffed dumplings that are fried, of course, but also things like aloo chana chat, more or less a warm salad of chickpeas, potatoes and a few nuggets of cucumber. The chat is a mixture of seasonings often used for snack foods. Its predominant note is amchoor, dried powdered green mango, which means it's sweet-sour, with a somewhat lemony aroma. Our venture into tandoori was with some large, moist chicken wings that arrived on a sizzling platter with just-past raw onions nestled alongside, along with a fresh lime for both flavor and aroma. Cooking onions always smell good, of course. Tandoori, which refers to a very hot clay oven is always a most proper introduction to Indian food, and we'd suggest this dish to anyone, novice or otherwise. Chili paneer is described as fried Indian cheese, but it's not battered and deep-fried. It's more like a stir fry with chili, onion and tomato, different from most Indian appetizers but definitely delicious.
Chicken 65 has been around for a while but still isn't on many St. Louis menus. Despite the name, it really isn't a “tourist dish.” Marinated in spices and quickly fried, the boneless chicken is full of ginger and garlic, and comes with sweet peppers, more onion, a little zucchini and a drift of cilantro, full-flavored without being incendiary. Speaking of “tourist dishes,” most serious food lovers know that chicken tikka masala was named the national dish of England a couple of years ago. Like mulligatawny soup, masala grew out of the Anglo-Indian connection to become a world-wide constant on Indian restaurant menus, and like so many dishes, everyone does it a little differently. We tried the fish tikka masala variation, and were thrilled with the result. The tomato sauce is rich and complexly spiced with a layer that made us think that perhaps cashews had been added to the ground-up aromatics that begin such sauces. The fish was tilapia, with the sauce complementing but not overwhelming its flavor. There's a chicken version available, too, of course, and a vegetarian one. The aromas of turmeric and fenugreek also were noticeable, along with cumin.
Mushroom mattar(above, left) brought peas and mushrooms in a completely different tomato gravy, a little sour and with a nice hit of red pepper. We'd asked for this one to be spicy, and it turned out to be an excellent contrast to the tikka masala. Another contrast came from lamb with spinach, lamb saag (above, right), its sauce golden from turmeric, with a touch of sweetness from the vegetables that heightened the flavors of the spinach and the extremely tender lamb.
A constant at the better Indian restaurants is plethora of difference, delicious breads, leading us once again to a discussion of a future meal of nothing but the breads; there are 13 on the menu at Haveli – but we stuck to the buttery nan, warm, light and very flavorful.
As to dessert, it was a case of something old, something new. The former was the familiar gulab jamun, the doughnut-hole-like cakes that arrived fresh, hot and melt-in-the-mouth delicious. These babies were obviously fried to order and arrived in just a little bit of warm syrup, bringing great delight to. And new to both of us was a flavor of Indian ice cream called falooda. Indian ice cream, by the way, is not churned, but frozen undisturbed, rather like a Fudgesicle, so the texture is different. Falooda itself is a drink/dessert served in summer, and the ice cream incorporates the ingredients, like small, chewy noodles and a few black seeds, which are known as falooda seeds. Colored a pale rose pink and flavored with rosewater, the falooda ice cream is different, refreshing, something else to explore.
Mrs. Patel seems to be doing much of the serving herself, but this is a good-sized dining room, with a large buffet at lunch. Still, she lends a homey air, especially if she understands that a guest is interested in what's being offered. And there are plenty of things we'd like to explore, like the scrambled egg appetizer and the keema biryani.
9720 Page Blvd., Overland
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good