2014 shall be forever remembered, not only as the 100th anniversary of The Great War, but for being the year of an even more formative event in the history of mankind. I refer of course to the abrupt shuttering of Taj Express on Lemmon Avenue, the dilapidated shack of an Indian restaurant that essentially served the whole south-of-northwest-highway catchment area with Indian food.
Sure, it was all-buffet, all the time. Sure, the buffet only had about three meat dishes and about five veggies. Sure, it was closed Sunday (when everybody wants brunch). Sure, the tables and chairs appeared to have been reclaimed from a dump. Sure, the building looked like it would blow down if one of the passing homeless people as much as farted at it from twenty yards.
None of this mattered. Because the food was carefully cooked. It was truly delicious in fact. The price was right, at less than $10 for all you could eat. And there wasn’t another Indian south of the passable Taj Mahal at Meadow Road and central, or east of the excellent Underground Indian Cuisine in Irving.
Taj’s closing meant the neighborhood essentially had no reason to continue existing. Use it for stealth bomber practise. House ebola patients there (Wholefoods is a short crawl). There is no longer any reason to visit.
As I packed my last houseplant, news arrived that caused me to pause. An Indian restaurant would open in the Lower Greenville Avenue area, near that wonderful walk-up Tacos Y Mas loved, more than by me, only by my my dog as she can scavenge for scraps while I wait for my order rather than being confined to the car. And just a block from the Truck Yard where God’s ice cream is sold.
I checked by and twice ran into “opening soon” paraphernalia before, last week, securing a reservation at an open Shiva’s Bar and Grill. Here is an initial impression based on one anonymous visit. Bear in mind they have only been open since August and, since that is less than the six week grace period that I give to solve teething problems, I am commenting on the basic concept and intention, rather than the execution.
First, the Greenville Avenue situation. Parking is easier than it looks. There are a handful of spaces behind the restaurant on the property. We snagged one of those at 7:30pm on a weekend. Two blocks down Alta is a large free public space that is shared with everyone else. It looked full when we left just before 9pm. Last choice is valet, which is shared with other restaurants.
Second, we got the gracious welcome I would have wanted from the owner Ramesh Sundaram and a gal at the maitre d’ stand as we entered. Despite being prime time, only about 15 percent of tables were occupied. Our first seating location, a well-located booth (we were offered the option of a table), suffered from table leg dystrophy. The table rocked due to osteoporosis in one of its legs. A matchbookadectomy to stabilize things was judged an unsafe procedure by the capable waiter, who moved us to another booth. That had a sound table and a good view of bustling Lower Greenville Avenue and the interior scene of the restaurant.
One difference is immediately obvious between Shivas and Taj Express. Shiva’s walls and ceiling won’t fall on you. That is reassuring when you are eating a vindaloo. Some thought has actually been put into the stone walls and decor, but not a lot of money.
You get papadums and a boat of mint and tamarind chutneys, plus marinated chopped onions to put on them while you wait for your order. Don’t let them take this away, the flavors are just as great on your main course.
We started with shared Chicken Chaat ($11) from the appetizer section of the menu. Think of it as Indian nachos. Crisp tortillas, made of a distinctly Indian flour, topped with diced chicken and chutney. It was not just a hit with us, it is the kind of dish that Shivas needs more of in order to differentiate itself from the steam table Indian restaurants that are ubiquitous in Dallas. Our main courses illustrated this problem. My Lamb Rogan Josh ($16) was a perfectly cooked yogurt-based sauce of onion, ginger, garlic and aromatics accompanied by springy, puffy rice. There was enough to fill me up and take home for lunch the next day. The problem is that Rogan Josh is a staple on steam tables that offer all-you-can-eat for $13. Likewise tikka masala, curry and vindaloo, all also on the menu. Why, people will ask, pay the premium to come to Shivas? What is their special value proposition?
It isn’t BYOB, as at Underground Indian Cuisine. I looked to see if they capitalized on Indian food’s affinity with beer. Not so. Other than Kingfisher (an insipid, but Indian, lager) and Real Ale’s Fireman’s #4, this is a Anheuser-Busch shop. The wine list is a “not quite as bad as I expected” list marked up at about 3x retail.
The must-go proposition may be that a given style of preparation can be based around a choice of protein. For example, my Rogan Josh could have been based around chicken, beef, salmon, prawns, lobster and mushrooms or alligator and mushroom. This is possible because the sauces are prepared separately from the protein and only combined at service time. But I am in two minds about this approach. On the one hand it gives the customer a broader choice. On the other hand, the proteins are combined with the sauce so late that they lack the long-cooked taste that is at the heart of stewing as a cooking technique. My dining companion found her Chettinadu ($14) with chicken had another glorious sauce but the chicken was a single large hunk submerged in the center of the sauce.
In England, some Indian restaurants take this corner-cutting even further, buying bags of pre-made sauce, bags of pre-cut chicken, then heating the first and pan searing the second to make a dish with the two bundled together. It is Indian fast-food.
Ramesh Sundaram has an ingratiating sense of hospitality and I want the death of Taj Express to be vanquished (this part of town benefits hugely from an Indian restaurant). I would urge him to spend a couple of evening meals at, by way of example, Underground Indian Cuisine and its Dumpukht cuisine (in the sterile environment of Las Colinas) and Mughlai and its nod to Mughal cooking in Addison. Then, ponder how to make Shiva’s as differentiated from the pissing contest of the steam tables as those restaurants are.
He should also dump the Budweiser beers in preference to a major commitment to local brews and add some Texas wines to the wine list (which should be more reasonably priced).
There is potential and a lot to like at Shiva’s. I hope they fix the conceptual glitches. In the meantime, check it out.