Small. Very casual. Almost bare-bones. Elegant aromas. That's Spice-n-Grill, located in a small strip of shops on the south side of Olive in University City, much closer to Skinker than the multitude of Asian restaurants that make the street a food-lover's target. Run by the Khan family, who formerly owned Indian Food, closer to I-170, it's much smaller, seating scarcely a dozen, and with a counter that makes one at first think it's only take-out. But no, and an invitation to be seated greets incoming guests.
The menu is short, but pleasantly varied, with eight vegetarian options. There really isn't any appetizer section, but a couple of kinds of samosas are offered along with kebabs in the first part of the menu. Chicken boti kebab was a half-dozen generous pieces of white meat rubbed with spices and served with pieces of onion as a bed, the turmeric-laced seasoning warming, softening and seasoning the onions. And it arrived with the entrees, seemingly a slip-up until I realized that it wasn't really a first course. But the meat was juicy and not overcooked, a pleasant thing particularly with white meat's tendency to overcook at the drop of a fork.
Listed as the specialty dish is nihari, a traditional Pakistani dish quite unlike any South Asian curry we've had. Made here with either beef or lamb shank and served with the bones removed, it's essentially a complex stew, one of those things that everyone's family surely has done their own way for generations. It clearly has wee julienne of fresh ginger in it as well as the usual chopped ginger, onions and garlic and cardamom seems to be in the background. But there's also a mysterious note that may well be anise. The beef in the dish we had was deeply tender; the dish is traditionally cooked very slowly, and then served as breakfast, but the story is that it can produce a morning nap that will last until afternoon prayers. Yes, it's rich, but definitely worthwhile.
Even richer is the lamb tikka masala, an incredibly creamy rendition, its orange-ish sauce full-flavored and aromatic. The meat here, too, was tender and lean. Mr. Khan was careful to inquire about our spicing preference, and we'd asked for the tikka masala mild and the beef nihari medium. "Mild" here does not mean "no heat". It left a definite mouth tingle. The request for the nihari to be hot caused some raised eyebrows, and after some discussion, our old line "Indian medium" came into play. He nodded in agreement. And the dish was spicier than the tikka masala but not shockingly so for the palate that's used to some spiciness.
Goat biryani couldn't be passed up. "It has bones," he warned, which is fine; bones add succulence, as all cooks know. The rice dish is particularly colorful here, bits of carrot and tomato contrasting with a sprinkle of cilantro, and seems particularly moist, as though a sauce had been stirred in after cooking was done. The goat meat was as mild as lamb, and more carefully, if not completely perfectly, trimmed of fat and gristle than many I've come across. We'd told Mr. Khan to spice it as he thought best, and it was moderately lively, although the next-day leftovers seemed calmer. A particularly tasty rendition of a dish that's often a favorite, and a lighter alternative to the nihari and tikka masala.
And then there was the raita chase. The ordered raita didn't arrive, nor did it appear on the check. Next day, we wanted some to go with leftover biryani and stopped by. "I'm sorry," said the proprietor regretfully, "We're making the yogurt for it. Tomorrow." So no raita for us. Chapatti, the wide, thin bread baked to order was excellent, perfect alone or for wiping up the last bit of delectable sauce.
A new dessert option popped up, sooji halwa. It's a thick, dark golden pudding made by toasting farina in ghee until it's the right color and then slowly adding a sweet, cardamom-laced syrup, the process rather like one does risotto. It's very sweet, very rich, managing to be both soothing and exciting at the same time. From an American standpoint, serving ti with a dollop of that yogurt they were making would be just right, I suspect. Mango lassi was thinner in consistency than often found, and leaned more toward sweet than tart-sweet.
The breakfast-curious may be interested to know that on Saturday and Sunday, Spice-n-Grill offers halwa poori, a traditional breakfast, during brunch-ish hours, 11-2:30. It consists of a chickpea curry, potato bhaji (a sort of fritter), halwa and a couple of pieces of the deepfried bread called poori, all for a set price.
Pleasant, attentive service, certainly, interesting food and a simple setting. Good stuff.
6800 Olive Blvd., University City
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sun
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair