Cafe Society


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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.

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan