Whoa, I thought when I walked into Biryani House recently. Did I get the wrong address? This didn't look at all like the place where I'd met a friend for lunch just three weeks earlier. We'd gotten the buffet, and while some of the food suffered from the typical steam table fatigue, a couple of dishes were so good that I decided to come back and order from the menu.
In the short time that passed before my return, owner Vaishali Nayak had given the place a thorough makeover. What had been a tired-looking space with a confusing layout was transformed into a cheery dining room and full bar with walls freshly painted in soft shades of lavender and green.
Still nothing fancy, mind you, but a big improvement.
I did another double take when I opened the menu. The offering had grown dramatically, and now included some six dozen listings representing the cuisines of (mostly) northern India and Pakistan. Or is it cuisine, singular? Nayak prefers the term Indo-Pak, pointing out that the line between the two cuisines is blurred, often to the point of being nonexistent.
Still, the menu does offer a few dishes whose names you're not likely to find in your standard Indian restaurant. One of these is chicken haleem, which turns out to be far tastier -- not to mention spicier -- than its menu description of "mashed chicken and lentils paste." Goat nihari, a rustic stew spangled with chopped cilantro, fresh chiles and slivers of gingerroot, is another exotic surprise. Yet another is Achari chicken, which the menu describes as "a northwest frontier style of cooking chicken." On the plate, that translates to bone-in legs and thighs in a yogurt sauce punctuated by black mustard seeds and just a hint of salty-pungent Indian pickles.
Whatever you call the cuisine at Biryani House, the restaurant's signature dish is worthy of having its name on the door. Biryani is available in five variations, with your choice of chicken, lamb, shrimp, goat or vegetables woven into a tapestry of basmati rice flecked with saffron-stained grains, cinnamon sticks, and other spices.
But I'd steer clear of the fish curry. Normally, I'd consider it a pleasant surprise when the menu tells me to expect tilapia filet and I'm served a bone-in fish instead. In my experience, just about anything cooked on the bone is more flavorful. But in this case, the tilapia was undercooked in the middle and its skin was rubbery.
Tandoori dishes aren't a strong suit, either, judging by the mixed-grill appetizer platter I ordered recently. Lamb and chicken seekh kebabs were both juicy and flavorful, but the lamb boti kebab was only average.
Too much of the spiced yogurt marinade had been left on tandoori shrimp and chicken, resulting in an unappetizingly thick, mushy coating.
Pakoras are a much better starter option. With an exceptionally light, crisp (and spicy) batter, these Indian fritters are available in two versions: chicken, or the addictive vegetable pakoras I couldn't stop eating.
In fact, I'd happily abandon my confirmed carnivore status -- well, for an evening, anyway -- to dine on those vegetable pakoras, followed by a sampling from the selection of vegetarian entrees at Biryani House. Bhagare baingan, a Hyderabadi dish featuring tender young eggplants in a thick, exotically fragrant gravy, would do nicely. And, though it isn't on the menu, I'd have to have an encore performance of the sahi paneer our waitress recommended one night: Indian cheese in a tomato cream sauce thickened with ground cashews and perfumed with masala spices.
Service is friendly and eager to please, though it appears the wait staff are still getting the hang of table service. Don't be surprised if you have to summon your server more than once during the course of a meal, or if your entrees are delivered over a span of 15 or 20 minutes.
Of course, there's always the buffet option if it's lunchtime and you're in a hurry. Personally, I plan on allowing plenty of time and ordering from the menu.