The flavors of India, from North to South, on one menu

CorrespondentFebruary 28, 2013 

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    5 Hot Chillies

    6105 Grace Park Drive, Morrisville


    Cuisine: Indian

    Rating: * *  1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: contemporary, cheery

    Noise level: low

    Service: eager to please but easily overwhelmed

    Recommended: tandoori chaat, fish koliwada, chile garlic fish, biryani, 5 Hot Chillies curry, lamb vindaloo (my wife’s emphatic recommendation)

    Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday (10-11 a.m.)

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; 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.

“Is this the lamb vindaloo I ordered?” I ask our server when she sets the dish on the table. She assures me that it is, though it doesn’t look like any lamb vindaloo I’ve ever seen.

This one isn’t the deep bronze color of the dish that has long been one of my Indian restaurant favorites. It’s an unapologetically peachy red with creamy undertones – more like a korma, say, or some versions of chicken tikka masala I’ve had.

But sure enough, tucked into this pastel blanket of a sauce are the traditional vindaloo chunks of lamb and potato in roughly equal portion. And while the sauce is only moderately spicy, it does carry an unmistakable whiff of the vinegary tang that’s a hallmark of a vindaloo. Not quite what I had in mind when I ordered the dish, but I have to admit it’s pretty tasty.

My wife, who is not generally fond of pungent flavors, surprises me at first by saying she loves it. Then I consider the fact that the vinegar bite is tempered by the soothing creaminess of the sauce. And I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that the dish is comfortingly in the medium range on the spiciness scale –even though I specified “hot.”

In fact, the heat level of the vindaloo is indistinguishable from that of the house specialty shrimp curry, which I’ve ordered medium – and which, as it happens, I prefer. This one delivers another surprise in the form of curry leaves and black mustard seeds, giving a decidedly southern savor to a dish that for many Americans is definitively northern Indian.

Turns out the curry is a house specialty because chef Arun (he goes by the one name) is from southern India.

There’s a reasonable explanation for that unorthodox vindaloo, too. It’s part of an extensive menu that meanders all over the subcontinent in its pursuit of appealing to the widest possible range of tastes.

Craving the comfort of familiar northern fare? Odds are you’ll find what you’re looking for in a selection that covers the spectrum from chicken korma to lamb rogan josh. Other specialties such as chicken tikka masala and butter chicken are not strictly authentic (they evolved in Indian restaurants in Britain) but are invariably found on northern Indian menus.

Venture outside the box labeled “5 Hot Chillies House Specialty,” and you’ll even discover a northern-style fish curry. Or drop in at lunchtime, when the non-vegetarian platter has been known to include a choice of chicken or mutton curry.

The clay oven turns out the usual tandoori suspects, though in my experience the results can be variable. The lamb seekh kebab is a good bet, as is tandoori chaat, an appetizer medley of tandoori-spiced and seared wedges of paneer, pineapple, onions and green peppers.

You’ll search in vain for the southern Indian classics dosa, idli and sambar, but you will find fragrant renditions of the region’s lemon rice and hyderabadi biryani. Fish koliwada, Mumbai’s spicy answer to crab cakes, are a rewarding starter option seldom seen in these parts.

An entire section of the menu is devoted to Indo-Chinese cuisine, whose roots are thought to be in the immigrant Chinese community of Kolkata. Among them is chile garlic fish, another house specialty (and deservedly so). Crisp spring rolls, served with a sweet chile dipping sauce, are an exotic (albeit greasy) change of pace from the Chinese takeout shop norm. Other Indo-Chinese temptations include sweet and sour eggplant, hakka noodles, and chicken 65 (as well as its cauliflower cousin, aloo 65).

The vegetarian offering is as varied as the rest of the menu. Among the pleasant surprises you’ll find sprinkled among the expected choices of dal, aloo gobi and saag paneer is vegetable makhanwala. Think butter chicken, but with vegetables in that rich, buttery tomato gravy. And then picture it topped with nuts.

Decor in the modest 12-table dining room takes its cue from the menu, uniting disparate elements into a generally harmonious whole. Contemporary floral collages and scores of tiny bells in bejeweled frames, hung on walls of saffron and tomato red, set a mood that is cheerily welcoming with a touch of the exotic. Black and white table linens elevate the mood above the strip mall eatery norm.

5 Hot Chillies is owned by first-time restaurateurs Nikur and Ketki Patel. Nikur Patel manages the business side of things and helps in the kitchen, while Ketki runs the front of the house.

The wait staff are uniformly enthusiastic under her direction, though less experienced servers are sometimes overwhelmed even when the dining room is only half full. The restaurant has been open only since November, though, so it’s a good bet that service will smooth out over time.

Especially with Ketki Patel setting the example. Having seen how she quickly and cheerfully corrects a mistaken order here, delivers an overlooked bowl of rice there, it’s clear that she is as dedicated to pleasing everyone as the restaurant’s all-embracing menu. or

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