Passage to India
Don’t ask me, for God’s sake, to give you precise directions to the new location for Swagat Fine Indian Cuisine. Five months ago, it moved from its original strip-mall location just across the intersection into a more glamorous new space in the Zona Rosa Shopping Center. I found the new Swagat only after driving around the serpentine streets of Zona Rosa until I made a lucky left-hand turn near the unfinished movie theater. There it was, tucked into an unassuming storefront.
With so much construction going on around this back stretch of Zona Rosa — the Northland’s answer to the Country Club Plaza, melding elements of a suburban shopping mall with a small-town commercial district — it feels as if Swagat is off in an isolated, uncharted corner. But restaurant owner Gurdev Choong is high on the place, which he thinks is a vast improvement over the lowbrow strip across the street. That’s where he opened Swagat in 2003; there hadn’t been an Indian restaurant in the Northland before that, and Choong established himself as a culinary pioneer.
Actually, he’s been all over the map when it comes to creating Indian restaurants — before Swagat, he founded the India Palace restaurants in Overland Park and Lawrence. But Swagat was a gamble. Choong knew about Midwesterners’ common misconception — never having tasted Indian food — that it’s “too spicy.” It’s not just Northlanders; supposedly sophisticated midtown friends of mine wrinkle their noses at the very idea of nibbling on a fried pakora or a meat-stuffed samosa.
“I can’t cope with all those spices,” explained one buddy of mine who wouldn’t think twice about polishing off a bag of jalapeño-flavored potato chips, a plate of sushi with wasabi, or a tray of barbecued ribs slathered with hot sauce. The real reason for his reluctance to try Indian food, he later confessed, is that he was once dragged to an Indian buffet and the visuals freaked him out. “There were all these strange orange sauces, and the chicken was bright red and it didn’t look normal.”
I’m not sure what normal is supposed to look like — I find Indian fare a visual turn-on for the same reasons my friend panicked (though, for the record, I’m not a buffet devotee). I like the vibrant red of a marinated tandoori chicken and the rich red-orange sauce that blankets a dish of butter chicken. The lure of food that looked sexy and packed a punch was enthralling enough for my friends Mike, Roger and Bob to join me for a jaunt out to Barry Road and a spin through Zona Rosa.
“Are you sure it’s open?” Roger asked when we finally found the restaurant. Its name means respectfully welcome, Choong later told us, though he might want to put that sentiment in garish neon, because the storefront looks empty until you walk through the door. We learned that he keeps the front dining room dark, using it only for private parties or when the main dining room in the back gets too crowded. After peeking into the dimly lighted foyer, we were greeted and swept back into a pretty room with attractive carpet, upholstered booths tented with lacy fabrics, vases of fresh roses and uncloaked tables with paper place mats. The patterned molding on the ceiling was brown plastic, but as the lights dimmed, it sort of looked like mahogany.
“And they’re playing Indian disco music,” Bob noted as he broke off a shard of peppery, crackerlike pappadam from a plastic mesh basket on the table. Sure enough, there was a vaguely 1980s pop beat behind the vocalist. (It was one of the many interesting retro touches at Swagat, such as polyurethane baskets and stainless-steel carousel condiment containers, the kind used by “fancy” restaurants to serve salad dressings in the 1960s.) The New Delhi disco must have emboldened me to think it really was 1981 again, because I ate as lustily as if I could still fit into a pair of Dance Fever gabardine slacks. Since we had the condiment carousel — filled with amber-colored onion chutney, syrupy sweet tamarind sauce and emerald-green mint chutney — staring us in the face, I wanted to put it to good use. Bring on the Swagat Platter and a basket of stuffed breads!
The platter had a mound of traditional fried Indian appetizers: pakora fritters, batter-dipped paneer cheese, chickpea-and-potato aloo tikki and a couple of starchy samosas. Sadly, they weren’t very memorable, unlike the steaming, fresh-baked breads that we greedily ripped apart. A stack of thick, doughy naan, each piece fragrant with its own distinctive filling (garlic or onion or potato and spices or the pashawary naan, with nuts and coconut) was lightly scorched from the tandoori oven.
“I don’t know how I’m going to eat an entrée,” Michael said. “I can’t stop eating this bread.” But that didn’t stop him from spooning a dollop of mint chutney on another hunk of garlic naan.
In a case of perfect timing, our dinners arrived at the very moment we’d devoured the last scrap of bread. A sizzling metal platter heaped with pieces of succulent tandoori chicken, sautéed vegetables and lemons for Bob; a silver dish with chicken hidden under a rich butter-and-tomato sauce for Roger; lamb in a creamy yogurt-based curry sauce for Michael. They’d all requested their dinners to be mildly spiced, and that’s precisely how they were — nothing too fiery or head-clearing. I had been more brazen, requesting a somewhat more potent heat for the restaurant’s signature biryani, ginger-scented basmati rice laden with chicken, lamb, shrimp, vegetables and nuts. It was a delicious disco inferno, baby.
I cooled down with a spoonful of mango ice cream while Bob, Roger and Michael debated the merits of the badami kulfi, a dense pistachio-cardamom ice cream that Michael thought tasted like soap but Roger liked — though he wasn’t sure why. “Maybe because it’s so rich and so unusual,” he said.
I returned a few nights later for another rich and unusual experience, this time with Lou Jane. We decided that the all-meat appetizer platter, with grilled lamb kebabs and chicken pakoras, was better than the all-veg version. And the combination of cool mint chutney on a piece of hot pudina naan, baked with mint and spices, had our heads spinning.
We requested one of this restaurant’s more fiery dishes, red-hot shrimp vindaloo, to be prepared on the milder side (Lou Jane was recovering from the flu), but those little shrimp still packed a big punch. I piled them on my plate, along with chunks of lamb saag cooked with spinach and garlic and mutter paneer, chewy cubes of freshly made cheese cooked with spices and exotic-sounding mutter (known here in the Midwest as good ol’ green peas).
Our server quietly whisked away the dinner plates and brought Lou Jane a bowl of frothy kheer, that light and creamy rice pudding sweetened with raisins and almonds. “There’s something dignified about this place,” she concluded, “in spite of the paper place mats, the disco music and the strange plastic design on the ceiling.”
I don’t know about dignified, but it is an iconoclastic and spicy addition to Zona Rosa’s culinary scene, where most of the restaurants are slickly managed corporate-chain satellites. Once you actually find it, you’ll want to go back.