Restaurant Review

Old favorites are succulently rendered at Dawat

CorrespondentSeptember 13, 2012 

  • Dawat 3735-105 Davis Drive, Morrisville 919-924-0503 www.dawatnc.com Cuisine: Indian Rating: ***1/2 Prices: $$-$$$ Atmosphere: contemporary, understated Noise level: low Service: efficient, reserved Recommended: onion bhajia, chicken 65, bhindi masala, Goan fish curry, lamb korma Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: accepted Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot. 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.

Looking around the dining room, taking in the clean contemporary look and muted earth tones, you get the feeling that Dawat is not your run-of-the-mill Indian restaurant. You might even take those impressionist prints of European cafés hanging on the wainscoted walls as a clue that Dawat is riding the currently fashionable wave of restaurants specializing in Indian cuisine with a Western flair.

You’d be wrong. Better to take your hint from the Bollywood movie that’s likely playing on the small TV over the compact mahogany bar. Or the buffet steam tables in the corner of the room, which stand empty in the evening but at lunchtime offer an ample selection of Dawat’s menu.

You won’t find any East-West fusion dishes on that menu. Or a focus on an obscure regional cuisine, or any of the other variations that new Indian restaurants have of late been introducing to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive and sophisticated market.

Harinder Singh, a veteran chef from the northern Indian state of Punjab who opened Dawat in May, aims to stand out not by being novel but by being better at rendering our old favorites. Singh’s menu will be comfortingly familiar to those for whom “going out for Indian” still conjures images of lamb curry and chicken tikka masala.

Both of which are solid options on Dawat’s extensive menu of mostly northern Indian fare. Vegetarian and seafood dishes are especially well represented, accounting for more than half of the 60-plus entree listings. In any case, you’re not likely to search in vain for your old standby.

If you like the lamb curry, chances are you’ll love the korma, which serves up tender chunks of lamb in a spice-fragrant sauce enriched with cashews, almonds and fresh cream. Likewise, chicken tikka masala fans might consider exploring the supple delights of butter chicken, the chef’s favorite dish. You’ll have to ask for it, though, because it isn’t listed on the menu.

Singh is also justifiably proud of his seekh kebabs, one of a dozen specialties from a clay oven that turns out everything from tandoori chicken to fish tikka to lamb chops. Paneer tikka, tandoori-seared cubes of homemade cheese served on a sizzling bed of onions and peppers, is a surefire way to whet your appetite.

So is tomato shorba, a velvety, cilantro-spangled tomato soup. And onion bhajia, India’s chickpea-flour-battered answer to onion rings.

And bhindi masala – though you won’t find this classic Punjabi fried okra dish listed among the appetizers. It’s listed with the vegetarian entrees. But I can’t imagine a better nibbling companion for exploring Dawat’s solid selection of Indian beers than these little nuggets of spice-crusted goodness.

Nor does the level of execution drop noticeably when the chef occasionally ventures into southern Indian territory. His chile-riddled rendition of chicken 65 is as good as any I’ve had in these parts. Goan fish curry is on the money, too, featuring tilapia in a vibrant sauce of tomato, onion, coconut and spices. And anyone in the mood for something as richly rewarding as butter chicken but a little spicier need look no further than chicken Madras.

Of course, if all you’re looking for is a bit of Indian comfort food, then the Special Dinner for Two ought to do nicely: samosa, pakora, chicken tikka masala, lamb curry, vegetable korma, rice, naan and rice pudding, all for $42.

Kitchen miscues are infrequent and, in my experience, minor. Lamb is usually – but not always – as succulent as it was in that excellent lamb korma I sampled. Poori is denser than the ideal for this famously light, air-puffed balloon of wheat bread.

According to Harinder Singh, dawat is a word in his native language meaning something like “invitation to share.” At first, the reserved demeanor of Dawat’s wait staff may not appear to live up to the spirit of that name. Rest assured that their quiet efficiency will win you over, and in no time you will indeed feel like an invited guest. And the food will make you glad you accepted the invitation.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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