Last July, a new sign went up in front of the building that for nearly a quarter century had been home to India Mahal on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. The sign, which depicts a howling wolf standing on a crescent moon against a background of vivid orange flames, serves its primary purpose in spades: getting your attention. And surely the wolf is a nod to the mascot of nearby N.C. State?
Not exactly. The design began taking shape in the mind of owner/chef Nasir Khan long before he knew where he would realize the dream of opening his first restaurant. The seeds of that dream were planted during the seven years that the Pakistani native spent working in restaurants in Spain and Greece, and they continued to grow after he moved to the States three years ago.
Paired with the restaurant’s distinctive name, the sign also serves notice that Wild Cook’s Indian Grill is not your father’s Indian restaurant. For starters, Khan – who worked for Whole Foods prior to opening the restaurant – is passionate about using fresh ingredients and favors organic produce. The young chef occasionally shows his “wild cook” side, too, with personal touches such as the ginger- and cream-tinged onion sauce that he spoons over tandoori meats.
True to tradition
By and large, though, Khan’s renderings of northern Indian fare remain true to tradition.
“I make mango lassi just like my mom served in the mornings when I was a kid,” he says. “I make my own yogurt, and I add a little ice to cool it.”
Khan makes samosas and pakoras from scratch, too. I’m partial to the blistery-crusted lamb samosas, with the vegetable pakoras – fritter-like clusters of cauliflower, potato and onion interwoven with fresh spinach – coming in a close second. Cheese pakoras are just OK (they come off as bland, somehow, in spite of their dusting of spices), but fish pakoras are a keeper.
Execution is reasonably solid across the board, in fact, though occasional glitches are telltale evidence that Khan is largely self-taught (much of his restaurant experience has been as a waiter). You might encounter a couple of bone shards in the goat vindaloo, for example, or a tandoori mixed grill that’s on the money one time and overcooked the next.
It’s even possible to experience both extremes on the same night, as my wife and I learned one night when our server misunderstood our order for the non-vegetarian appetizer sampler and brought the “tandoori mix” appetizer instead. I’m not sure how it didn’t register with her that we wouldn’t be likely to order a mixed tandoori appetizer to precede the full entree version of the tandoori mixed grill that we had ordered as a main course – and which she also delivered in due course. The silver lining from a restaurant critic’s perspective is the revealing discovery that the kitchen is capable of such a wide disparity in the execution of essentially the same assortment of grilled meats, just 20 minutes apart.
Happily, consistency has shown marked improvement in recent months. The last time I dined at Wild Cook’s, a couple of weeks ago with a party of four, we sampled freely across the menu without encountering any kitchen miscues greater than a slightly dense naan. The meal got off to a promising start with the traditional complimentary pappadum and chutneys, followed by starters of aloo chaat (a delightful, pomegranate seed-spangled medley of potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes in tamarind sauce) and an assortment of pakoras and samosas.
Entrees kept the party going in style, with highlights including a first-rate chicken Kashmiri korma and fish bhuna, a rich, spice-fragrant curry of tilapia (the menu says haddock but Khan has since changed the fish), onions and peppers. Lamb vindaloo came out medium-hot as ordered, with the vinegary tang that’s a hallmark of the dish. The meat was lean and tender – and, especially gratifying in light of the previous goat vindaloo encounter, there were no bone fragments to negotiate.
‘Indian-style Western’ dishes
Nasir Khan is the first to admit that Wild Cook’s Indian Grill is a work in progress. He has made a good start in shedding the tired look he inherited from India Mahal, giving the dining room walls a fresh coat of paint in shades of plum and pistachio. As he gains confidence in the kitchen, he plans to back up the restaurant’s name with a daily changing selection of “Indian-style Western” dishes.
In the meantime, Khan is doing lots of little things to realize his dream of making his restaurant a welcoming neighborhood gathering place. He has stocked the bar with a modest but thoughtfully chosen wine list, and set up a cozy corner in the back of the room with cushioned benches for enjoying a glass while waiting for a table. When he isn’t too busy in the kitchen, the chef plays affable host, backing up the wait staff and delivering complimentary desserts.
No doubt his mother would approve.
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