A drive into the southern suburbs on a weekend can feel like you're entering a deserted city. Traffic after rush hour is light, and once the sun begins to set, people seem to clear out like they're expecting the vampires to come out. Places that normally do a brisk lunch business -- like Khazana, with its buffet full of pans of familiar-looking food -- are all but empty, despite being surrounded by housing developments and apartment complexes in various shades of tan. Tuesday night may be industry night downtown, keeping the flow of tip money in circulation among cooks and waitstaff heading out on their nights off, but in Lone Tree, I had Khazana almost to myself for my first selection for a month of Indian cuisine, except for a small table of Indian businessmen and one or two takeout customers.
I would generally be a little worried about freshness and quality at an almost-empty restaurant, but Khazana does enough business during the day to keep the inventory rotating and the kitchen staff in practice. And I'd rather be in an empty dining room in the evening with a chance to order from the full menu than in front of the typical feeding trough atmosphere of most lunch buffets. Indian buffets are typically better than other all-you-can-eat spreads, but the food is still cooked in bulk and held at temperature on steam tables -- not exactly the best way to experience the cuisine of a country as rich and varied as India.
That variety can be the downfall of an Indian restaurant; kitchens try to span too much territory, with too many different cultural influences, and everything just comes out muddy and lacking individuality (a trait amplified by a buffet setup). Denver's Indian-restaurant scene tends toward a familiar litany of dishes, with a decided emphasis on lunch buffets. Khazana may span an even greater geographical distance, offering a few familiar dishes popular throughout India (and in the majority of Indian restaurants in the U.S.), but the house specials stick to southern regions, from Sri Lankan curries to seafood and street-style offerings from the southern Tamil Nadu region of India -- with stops in Chennai, Kerala and Madurai -- and up the east coast to Andhra Pradesh. While thick, multi-spiced sauces coating slow-cooked meats appear along with kabobs and vegetarian dishes featuring eggplant and cauliflower, the spice blends seem bright and new compared to typical vindaloos, masalas and kormas.
At the time, I didn't realize that many of the dishes were named for the towns or cultures from which they originated. Rather than attempting any systematic approach to a cohesive meal, I just went with what sounded unique. From the tiffin (appetizer) menu, I ordered a plate of the little lentil doughnuts called vada topped with a thin and tangy sambar sauce. Served this way (you can also order them plain), the vada lose their deep-fried, crispy exterior as they soak up the tamarind-based sauce, but whatever is lost in texture is made up for with the sambar, which had the consistency of a thick vegetable soup.
We also ordered a dosa, thinking it would be another appetizer, but when the waiter brought out the rolled lentil crepe, I realized that we weren't going to need any more food. The plate it came on was a standard sized dinner plate, but it looked like a tea saucer in comparison to the arm-length dosa. It's available in several styles; we ordered ours with Ceylon goat curry. A small mound of sauce-drenched meat hid in the enormous dosa roll, and an extra side of curry sauce was provided for dipping. Tearing off bite after bite of the thin and crispy crepe hardly made a dent in its size, but the addictive flavors of butter, cilantro and slightly chewy lentil batter, combined with the rich and chile-spiked curry, almost made me forget about the Madras fish curry (called meen kuzhambu) we also ordered.
The fish curry was even spicier than the goat curry on the dosa, but the heat was tempered by fresh herbal flavors cooked into the sauce along with cumin, ginger, garlic and other flavors too complex and unfamiliar to identify.
Beneath the purple lighting of Khazana's orange-walled dining room, we sat and nibbled until we were the last customers, picking at the dosa and mopping up curry sauce with scraps of complimentary naan bread. It was a strange and delicious meal, probably not at all typical of a dinner in most Tamil homes or restaurants. Our table held plates spanning street food, breakfast-style dishes and slow-cooked comfort food; we washed them down with thick yogurt lassi. But certain flavors tied everything together: tamarind, chiles, curry and a certain liveliness on the tongue whose source I couldn't identify. I ate a little too much (okay, way too much), but I was pleasantly full -- not weighed down -- and there were still plenty of leftovers for the next day's breakfast.
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SHOW ME HOW
It's been a while since I've experienced a meal so wholly new and unfamiliar, the kind of dinner for which I wish I'd had a guide, if only to help string together a more coherent experience. Next time, I'll pull up a map of southern India while I make my choices so I can see the names of the cities as I look over the menu. I could stick with one style of cooking -- like the "famed Chettinad cuisine" promised on the menu -- or with just street food or just the dishes of one town. But with food so good, plans usually get scrapped in favor of just diving in and ordering what's most inspiring at the time. Authentic? Not necessarily, but such earnest goals usually come at the expense of good eating.