Intensely tasty variations on a regional Indian theme

CorrespondentOctober 15, 2010 

  • 10255-400 Chapel Hill Road, Morrisville


    Cuisine: Indian


    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: casual, contemporary

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: generally attentive but sometimes confused

    Recommended: lamb goli kebab, chicken 65, baghare baingan, biryani

    Open: lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Among the bumper crop of cuisines sown across the landscape by the Triangle's increasingly diverse population, none offers a more colorfully varied harvest than Indian. The flavor palette keeps expanding, too, and shows no sign of letting up.

Fifteen years ago, if you wanted go out for Indian, you had a mere handful of restaurants to choose from, none of them venturing far beyond the familiar curries of the north. Now there are more than two dozen, serving up a rainbow of regional flavors from every corner of the vast subcontinent.

Paradise India Cuisine adds another color to the spectrum. A modest but attractively furnished strip mall eatery that opened in April in Morrisville, Paradise specializes in the cuisine of Hyderabad, a southern city known for its distinctive biryani. Known as dum biryani, the dish features a meat or vegetables marinated in yogurt and spices and slow-cooked between layers of basmati rice for hours in a sealed pot until the flavors meld.

The menu lists five variations on the theme, though not all are available on a given night. According to Siva Apavoo, who owns the restaurant with partner Mangesh Gururaj, there isn't yet sufficient demand to support the full range of the offering, each version of which is made with a different blend of spices. Unlike many restaurant dishes, the components of a dum biryani can't be prepared separately and then combined to order.

The classic goat biryani is typically available only on weekends. But chicken biryani, which serves up shreds of spice-fragrant meat under a mound of white rice flecked with saffron-stained grains and chopped cilantro, offers ample consolation most nights. Tossed with the accompanying chile-spiked peanut sauce and a squeeze of lemon, the flavors of the dish really come to life.

Other biryani options include shrimp, vegetarian and a distinctive variation in which hard-boiled eggs are tucked just before serving into a slow-cooked medley of rice and assorted vegetables.

Beyond biryani

The menu goes beyond biryani to offer a brief tour of other Hyderabadi specialties, with occasional forays outside the region. From the northern end of the map - and at the milder end of the flavor spectrum - are the ever-popular tandoori dishes and specialties such as kadai gosht, a stew of bone-in lamb, onions, tomatoes and green peppers in a fragrant yogurt sauce.

Those who venture into the Chettinadi dishes of the southern tip of India do so at their own risk. They might find themselves confronted with the likes of shrimp thokku, a gastronomic powder keg of chiles, cardamom and a couple dozen other spices. If you're not sure of the spice level of a particular dish, ask your waiter. And if he can't tell you (a language barrier can pose a problem in some instances), persist until you get someone who can.

Hyderabadi dishes lie somewhere in the middle of the flavor spectrum, though most exhibit at least some of the fieriness for which southern Indian fare is noted. Chickpea batter-fried chiles (listed under the Appetizers heading as cut mirchi) come to mind. The vivid-red, spice-dyed batter of chicken 65 looks intimidating, too, but its bark is worse than its bite - the succulent nuggets of meat underneath that coating will generously reward the adventurous.

So will Hyderabadi chicken korma, whose exotically fragrant, curry-leaf-spangled sauce is spicier than that of the familiar northern version, but by no means overwhelmingly so. Fish kozhi vada, on the other hand, is surprisingly salty and so intensely spicy (though not in the chile-hot sense) that even my asbestos palate could take it only in small doses.

Diwani handi, a medley of cauliflower and other vegetables in a subtly sweet sauce, shouldn't prove a challenge to even the most timid palate, though the dish isn't otherwise particularly distinguished. A more rewarding vegetarian entree option is baghare baingan, which features baby eggplant cooked in a traditional Hyderabadi coconut curry.

The menu is still evolving, as popular lunch buffet dishes earn permanent status on the dinner menu. One such recent addition is lamb goli kebab, gently spiced meatballs that would tempt even the most buffet-averse to the Paradise steam tables. Regardless of whether you order from the menu or belly up to the buffet, though, the experience promises to be ... well, if not quite paradise, certainly a colorful culinary adventure.

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