We had just tucked into the Kababish tandoori platter we’d ordered when Samreen Nawaz stopped by our table to see how we were doing. Nawaz and her husband, Syed Yousuf, both natives of Pakistan by way of New York, had opened Kababish Cafe a few weeks earlier, in August in downtown Cary. He does the cooking while she greets guests and waits tables with hospitable charm and enthusiasm by the bucketful.
We assured her that we were more than satisfied with our meal, and then I couldn’t resist asking about the restaurant’s name. Is the “ish” some sort of Urdu suffix, I wondered, perhaps signifying a regional variation on Indian or Pakistani cuisine?
“Oh no,” said Nawaz, who goes by “Sam” and speaks the fluent English you’d expect of a person who grew up in the States. “That’s the American ‘ish’ – as in purplish or seven-ish.” She went on to explain that, while kababs and other tandoori meats are the restaurant’s featured attraction, Kababish Cafe defies categorization.
Or as she put it, “We’re not just another Indian restaurant in Cary.”
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I’ll say. What other Indian restaurant can you think of that serves a lamb burger topped with cream cheese, avocado, onions and mint sauce? Or house-made hummus, served with blistery fresh-baked naan? Or an apricot chicken naan wrap?
Even traditional dishes frequently get a distinctive Kababish twist. The tandoori sampler is a carnivore’s feast of bamboo-skewered lamb and chicken seekh kababs, lamb boti (lean chunks whose chewiness was the only off note the night we ordered the platter), chicken tikka and its milder yogurt-marinated cousin, Malai chicken tikka), and – the consensus favorite at our table – Bihari chicken kabab, a Northern Indian specialty that’s seldom seen in these parts.
But the meats weren’t served over sizzling onions and peppers on the customary tandoori cast iron skillet. Instead, the skewers were laid out in a neat row across a bed of mixed greens and a mound of fragrant basmati rice on a large oval white ceramic platter.
“At first, we were doing the sizzling platter,” Nawaz explains, “but the onions and peppers were coming back uneaten most of the time. So we changed it to a salad, with a vinaigrette that Syed created. People really like the salad.”
Order the tandoori fish – whole tilapia or filets of salmon or red snapper – and you’ll get the same rice and salad on the side. Same goes for the rest of the extensive tandoori offering, from Haryali paneer tikka (spice-marinated cubes of house-made cheese) to lamb chops.
Still, beneath all the “ish” tweaks the menu remains fundamentally true to its Indian and Pakistani roots. Except for the fact that the samosas come on a bed of mixed greens, they’re textbook. Saag paneer is an exemplary rendering of the familiar spinach dish, and Lahori bhindi delivers the promised exotic goods in a spicy medley of okra, tomatoes, onions and chiles.
The non-vegetarian side of the ledger covers the expected bases – and the Scoville spectrum – from butter chicken in a soothingly creamy tomato gravy to fiery, vinegar-tangy lamb vindaloo. Karahi, a wok-cooked dish seasoned with ginger, chiles and coarsely ground spices, offers a taste of adventure in the flavor of your choice: chicken, shrimp fish, lamb or goat.
Chef Yousuf’s prior experience at Biryani House is evident in an impressive selection of seven biryani variations.
If you’re looking to venture farther off the beaten path, set your sights on the section labeled “Chef’s Specials,” where you’ll find a couple of Pakistani rarities. Nihari serves up toothsome chunks of boneless lamb in a spicy bronze-colored curry spangled with threads of fried onion, ginger-root slivers and chopped cilantro.
The menu description of haleem – “delicious stew composed of chicken, lentils and pounded wheat made into a thick paste” – accurately suggests a texture that will be an acquired taste for some Western palates. The flavor is comfortingly earthy, though, and as I discovered the next day, dipping toasted wedges of naan into reheated leftovers, it grows on you.
Located in the former UnVine’d wine bar space in an out-of-the-way corner of Olde Cary Commons, Kababish Cafe is a hidden gem of a place that backs up the “ish” in the restaurant’s name with colorful paintings by local artists, lights strung from the ceiling, and a refreshing lack of Indian restaurant decor cliches. On the counter that was formerly a wine bar (Kababish Cafe doesn’t serve alcohol but allows BYOB with no corkage fee), a sign advertises create-your-own weekday lunch specials.
The art on the walls is for sale, part of the owners’ effort to support the local community. In that same spirit (the couple have lived in Cary for nearly a decade) they’re developing a live music schedule that draws on the Cary School of Music in the same building. I think it’s a safe bet that anyone who stopped in last Friday night and caught the Daniels Boys on guitar and sax while enjoying, say, a lamb burger and a Super Berry smoothie would agree: Kababish Cafe is not just another Indian restaurant in Cary.
201-103 W. Chatham St., Cary; 919-377-8794
Cuisine: Indian, Pakistani
Atmosphere: cheerfully casual hidden gem
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: exceptionally friendly and accommodating; can get overwhelmed when understaffed
Recommended: samosas, Kababish shrimp, tandoori platter, saag paneer, Lahori bhindi, nihari
Open: Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday. Closed Tuesday.
Other: no alcohol (BYOB); accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot and on street.
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.