Nawab Offers an Out-of-the-Ordinary Experience

Indian fare has zesty sauces, aromatic spices

A good curry is hard to find. Thankfully, though, quality Indian food in our region is more plentiful than it was 10 years ago.

Part of the credit goes to Nawab Indian Cuisine, which operates four locations in Hampton Roads, two of them on the Peninsula.

The local chain's Williamsburg restaurant may be the best of the quartet.

A combination of refined, soothing atmosphere and attention to culinary detail makes the Williamsburg 's Nawab a prime spot for a taste-expanding Indian experience.

When Americans think of Indian food, we're generally daydreaming about cuisine from the country's northern region. Soft, fluffy naan bread and zesty sauces are associated with the Punjab state, for example. And as fans of Indian food know, aromatic spices create spectacular flavors - some of them surprising to the Western palate. Then there's basmati rice - light, tender and fragrant. For me, rice alone is reason enough to get excited about food from this part of the world.

Nawab combines the familiar and the exotic in enough variations to suggest the continental richness of Indian cookery.

Like fish? Nawab offers at least nine dishes that give beautiful swimmers royal treatment. Try shrimp or scallop patia. In it, seafood is sautéed with mangoes, ginger and scallions. Another option is fish koliwada, salmon pieces flavored with mustard seeds, ginger and garlic.

Lamb fans will find as many choices. Dishes range from the classic vindaloo and biryani to something called saag gosht, tender lamb morsels matched with spiced spinach and herbs.

Throw in chicken specialties, a healthy number of vegetarian meals and a list of tandoori dishes - those cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor - and you've got a dizzying array of distinctive options.

Most are available at your preferred level of spiciness: mild, medium, hot, or Indian hot.

On our visit to Nawab, we crunched complimentary papadum - crisp cracker-like lentil bread served with flavorful mint chutney - trying to take it all in.

Unable to make a snap decision, we bought time by ordering wine and appetizers. Nawab's wine list, by the way, reached beyond our expectations. It includes a broad range of solid choices including Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Riesling. Some high-end bottles are available, but most of the selections are in a more moderate price range. Most are available by the glass for $4.75-$6.50.

Appetizers showed both strengths and weaknesses of Nawab's kitchen. The vegetable pakora ($3.50) featured bite-sized pieces of cauliflower and potato as well as clumps of tender spinach - all gently fried in a light batter. Dipped in a dish of sweet tamarind sauce, the pakora was delicious.

Chicken Manchurian ($4.95), sadly, didn't rise to the same standard. The chicken meatballs were covered in a tangy, tomato-like red sauce that delivered a bitter aftertaste. We set this aside, sure that something better was coming.

We were right.

Shrimp Goan curry ($15.95) was a winner. This simple dish with rich, subtle flavors is a specialty from Goa - a beach resort on the Arabian Sea coast, south of Bombay. It presented plump shrimp cooked in a light sauce of coconut milk, butter and spices. The combination of curry heat and coconut milk conjured the image of Thai food.

Here, the kitchen distinguished itself. Far from autopilot Indian, the shrimp dish showed finesse.

Vegetable biryani ($9.95) was almost as good. The mixture of rice and steamed vegetables - formed on the plate into the shape of a dome - was satisfying although not as robust as we had hoped. Red and green peppers, broccoli, onion, cilantro, mushrooms, peas and cauliflower were mixed in with the rice. A side of cucumber-yogurt sauce made a fine accompaniment.

Desserts at Nawab are an adventure. Mango kulfi ($3.75) is described on the menu as Indian ice cream, but that doesn't do it justice. The orange-colored conical-shaped serving was sliced into sections for easy munching. Flavor was sweet and fruity, but texture was very different from Western ice cream. My dining companion compared it to that of a frozen banana. Kheer ($2.95), traditional Indian rice pudding, was more familiar but still good. The rice grains were dressed up with milk, cardamom, pistachio, cinnamon and rose water. We found the kheer a little soupy, but still enjoyable.

Service during the first half of our meal was cheerful, helpful, prompt and efficient. It was almost non-existent in the second half.

Of course, carefully prepared food from the other side of the planet is the main attraction at Nawab. But the restaurant's décor turns in an impressive supporting performance.

Tones of white and green create a relaxed, elegant mood in the room. Brass chandeliers, a gurgling fountain and a large mural depicting an Indian-style palace let even first-time diners know they're about to experience something out of the ordinary