On the floor at Chutney's, manager Subash Shetty moves silently from table to table, filling gaps in service left by his waiters and waitresses. He takes drink orders. He answers questions the servers can't — how to pronounce tikka-e-noorjahani and which is spicier, the Peshawari chicken or the chicken Chettinad. Only six tables are occupied: two-tops and fours, most of them already well into their dinners. At seven o'clock on a Saturday night, the place should be slamming. This is prime time in the kitchen world, and Chutney's is smack in the heart of Castle Pines, an area of fine homes and few fine-dining options. But outside, even the streets are quiet. If the bazillionaires whose McMansions are tucked into the folds of the surrounding hills have left their homes at all — come down from on high in search of company, fun or dinner — they're not coming here.
This is my first visit to Chutney's. I loved Kannan Alagappan's last restaurant: Denver Woodlands, an Indian restaurant he opened in a tough strip-mall space in the entirely un-bazillionaire suburb of Aurora a couple years back. Despite being vegetarian, Woodlands was a great restaurant — comfortable and casual, presenting a slightly different take on Indian food than the common curry-and-pakora board offered almost everywhere else. The kitchen worked with a broad palette of spices, and the menu focused on fresh preparations not often seen outside of certain hyper-regional dining rooms. This was not an American-Indian restaurant, but a purely Indian-Indian one, offering the thayir sadam and dosa and rice cakes that are considered comfort food by Indian families but are as foreign as space aliens to anyone else. Woodlands closed abruptly, sadly, but Alagappan then transplanted some of those nativist sensibilities to Castle Pines, where nine months ago he and chef/partner Ravi Chandra opened the much more luxurious Chutney's.
When the waitress comes to my table, I make a joke about how slow things are. She doesn't appear to find it very funny. She asks if I have any questions about the menu, and I do, so I ask them. She fakes the answers as best she can, talking only about the dishes with English names. Shetty has to come by the table before I can get a drink; he asks if there's anything else I need. I say no and sink back into my booth to wait, looking over the rough but polished wood accents, the gentle colors of the walls, the large bar in front with its tables giving way to a bottleneck hallway with the kitchen and bathrooms on one side, windows on the other, a raised patio in back with a view of the sunset and the mountains. The dining room itself is comfortable and bright, warm, designed with an eye toward the flow of large crowds, even if the large crowds aren't materializing.
880 West Happy Canyon Road, Castle Rock
Hours: dinner daily
Honey gobi: $7
Tamater mahal: $7
Tandoori lobster: $24
Tandoori chicken: $14
Saag paneer: $13
Chicken pepper fry: $14
Lamb vindaloo: $18
The strangest thing about the space is its cultural anonymity. The music playing is banal soft jazz, the servers are dressed in a casual house livery of ordinary white over black. With just the rearrangement of a few decorations, a change in name, Chutney's could be any kind of restaurant — French or Spanish or Argentine or Continental. More than anything, it looks like the kind of restaurant you'd find in a well-appointed international hotel, with a borderless sense of being everywhere and nowhere at once. The only giveaway is the smell — that rich, soft, comforting odor of a hundred spices, of curry and a tandoor's earthy heat.
But even that smell does not begin to suggest the food that will follow. Although Denver is blessed with a profusion of very good Indian restaurants that showcase everything from the traditional Mughal cuisine of the north to the fierce spices of the south, from tandoori meats to Bengali seafood, the overwhelming majority of the Indian food available is family-style, really neighborhood Indian. It's the equivalent of having an entire Italian restaurant community dedicated to producing nothing but rustic trattoria dishes and allowing for no modern influence, no fine touches of opulence. Chutney's is the complete antithesis of this, an Indian restaurant that draws its inspiration not from the traditional neighborhood joints of India, but from the high-end kitchens of its hotels and resorts.
The whole notion of doing contemporary Indian cuisine, of presenting Indian food not as a peasant food, but as fine dining, is an unusual departure, one that puts an edge on even the most common and comforting dishes at Chutney's. The samosas, for example, are like a model of samosas, made with riced potatoes — not mashed — that are delicately spiced with cumin and fennel seed, studded with green peas, vaguely onion-scented rather than packed with limp bits of squishy onion, the fried-dough shells topped with a drizzle of mint chutney. The saag paneer that follows is so thick and rich with fresh spinach, cream and butter that it actually tastes like a soup reduced to its purest three-note expression. The honey gobi — florets of cauliflower glazed with garlic-shocked honey sauce — should be gross (come on, cauliflower and honey?) but is merely strange, pointed, unforgettable. And the pile of little orange shrimp mounted over sliced red onions, topped with a Madrasi salsa of tomatoes, cilantro and too many spices to count, is simply lovely.
One after another, the plates come, and one after another, they are not just excellent, but uncompromising — assembled with exacting care on a slow Saturday night, presented as though every table is the only one in the house that matters. I can smell my lamb vindaloo — a dish that I've eaten in just about every Indian restaurant in Denver at least once — coming from ten feet away. I spoon it over rice, fork up a bite of lamb dripping with the kitchen's Goan tomato sauce, and when I put it in my mouth, it's like closing my lips around a live hand grenade — an explosion of heat and light and blazing spice so intense and sharply calculated that the instant it fades, I can taste all the subtle flavors rushing along behind: the sweetness of tomato, curry like flint wrapped in cotton balls, savory lamb and the earthiness of the herbs with which it was roasted.
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There's a flavor to Indian food, a solid bass note of a dozen-odd spices with which almost all dishes in the canon are either started or finished. Like mirepoix is to the French, curry and garam masala are to Indian cooks: indispensable, the foundation of everything. But at Chutney's, this singular flavor is only the beginning, a foundation used the way a foundation ought to be: as a base upon which a cook can build just about any damn thing he can dream up. And Chandra takes full advantage of it, moving beyond the easy and the traditional into a realm of rigorous and finely balanced originality. He's had the training for it, to be sure, having turned down an engineering scholarship in order to go to culinary school in India, then working in the kitchens of resort hotels around the country. He came to the States in 2001 not with the intention of broadening his culinary horizons, but of perfecting what he already knew: the high-end cuisine of modern India. He did time at Dakshin in Chicago, then jumped out for New York City to cook at the Copper Chimney before Alagappan got ahold of him. Chandra uses spices with the mastery of any good Indian chef, but enhances this through his sense of adventure and pointed expertise with all those herbs and spices so rarely employed — methi and mace, tamarind and coriander. The result is an almost singular style of contemporary, urban Indian cuisine, lavished on a golf-course crowd down in Castle Pines that, if my first Saturday in his care is any indication, simply isn't that interested.
But I am. I go back on a weeknight for dinner and find another deserted dining room and a kitchen that absolutely does not care about the lack of crowds, a kitchen that cooks every dish as though this plate of tandoori chicken (done with game hens, split and roasted in the tandoor under a thick, powerful, brick-red marinade) or this channa masala (garbanzo beans slow-simmered with tomato and onion) is going to be the one that turns the tide. I watch Shetty, a veteran of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Beverly Wilshire, again working the floor, moving between the dining room and the kitchen and welcoming what few customers wander in.
I start with the tamater mahal, like an Italian caprese salad gone bamboo, with mozzarella cheese and tomatoes, slices of buttery avocado, red onion and a dressing that tastes of cut grass and mint, and follow that with rogan josh (another favorite — my kind of comfort food) in a sweet-hot tomato gravy with a texture like applesauce, so addictive that I finish three plates. The lamb is seared, then added to the sauce, cooked until beautifully tender, the sauce itself a swirl of sugar and razor blades. I skip the tandoori lobster, lobster masala and the giant shrimp spiced with carom seeds and mace in favor of a simple chicken pepper fry because it sounds so odd: dry chicken, flavored with just pepper and cilantro. After one bite, I know I've made the right choice, because I'm tasting something unlike anything I've ever had before. As promised, there are tender cubes of chicken, the spark of pepper and bitterness of cilantro, but there's also an unusual paste of ground nuts on top, twists of tomato flesh, yellow curry (maybe), coriander, cumin, dry chile, fenugreek (perhaps). It's astounding, delicious, less out-and-out Indian than Indian-like, Indian in inspiration, but wholly original and brilliant as well.
It's a wonderful dinner, cooked as though I'm the only one in the house. And the sad thing is that by the time dinner is over, I am.