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Aloo gobhi with purple potato and saffron-marinated cauliflower Photo by Ash Daniel
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Photo by Ash Daniel
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Konkani black pepper prawns Photo by Ash Daniel
Mel Oza has opened his own place. You know Mel Oza — the get-it-done guy at Lehja, the buffet-less, modern Indian dining room in Short Pump. He also unlocked the doors at Anokha, sister restaurant to Milan Indian Cuisine in Charlottesville. Oza is a chef, sommelier, consultant and mentor to those in his employ, some of whom are now proprietors. But mostly he's an industry maven, transforming the perception of Indian food from something spooned out of a steam table, to dishes with studied plating. That Mel Oza is now owner and full-time chef at Curry Craft Indian Restaurant & Bar in Carytown.
Oza's métier is jewel-in-the-crown cookery dotted with classical European techniques, a tribute to the influence that countries like France and Portugal have had on Indian cuisine. Curry Craft, with its polished metal plates shimmering like timbales, dark tabletops and hefty rocks glasses that wouldn't be out of place in the Playboy mansion, invites mystery — not hokey caricatures à la Tanquery Rangpur ads. Apart from the poke-your-own-eye-out trip-hop on constant loop, Curry Craft and its menus are sexily highbrow, like the first season of Downton Abbey.
Oza doesn't just wear his enormous love for India on his sleeve, he slow-cooks and dissolutely serves it up, as if begging diners to challenge his licentious seasoning. Curry leaves perfume his sauces, adding crunch. Cumin and Tellicherry peppercorns are roasted alive, not dead-dust-shaken from an industrial-size jar. Spinach is blistered with ginger and black lemon, adding bite to a soupy dish that at other restaurants can taste as if it's been smelted instead of simmered. Mel Oza's food may seem over-the-top hedonistic, but even in its toe-curling excesses, there's a balanced finesse.
Curry Craft's menu, like its galley-shape dining room, is small and focused. There are a handful of starters, such as a delightfully yogurt-less "chaat" of puffed rice and potatoes, then a page of main-course selections, subdivided into "heritage" and "vegan/vegetarian" choices. Dishes under the heritage section are a tribute to the panoply of regional Indian cuisine that Oza knows well, served family-style with basmati rice and studded with popped cardamom pods. Daily seafood dishes are often creative takes on prawns, and hot goan-style lamb curry is the fiery blend of sweet and heat one hopes for when ordering a dish spiked with both sugar cane and vinegar.
Vegetarian and vegan offerings are deftly handled. Eggplant in a Pondicherry spice mix, with garlic and tomato, is a French-influenced dish hailing from the Indian East Coast. A loose eggplant purée, both hot and earthy at once, wends down my throat like a slow, baking sun. Paneer makhni, buttery cheese and sleepy cream, rouses from catatonia with an acidic brace of tomato. The vegan lunch special is less appealing, a cauldron of kiddie-candy-sweet pineapple and coconut-milk curry with squishy soy nuggets the texture of a waterlogged sponge. I fill up on the tough naan that it's served with.
One reason why restaurant reviewers wait before passing judgment is the ephemeral nature of the business itself. Failure rates are high. Ditto staff turnover. At the five-month mark, Curry Craft runs like a steady ship one visit — with wait staff knowing the menu chapter and verse — and like a rocky canoe the next, when my server can't answer basic questions about the food, then forgets to ask someone who knows his lines. When a menu is loaded with quotation marks, diners are going to have questions. And they should, because behind each dish at Curry Craft, there's a story.
Tellichery chicken "rotti" style, a spicy appetizer arranged on puréed mango paint, mixed with a rainbow of Kerala spices, references an adopted Portuguese cooking technique, not the bread. "Mal Mal" in Malai palak chenna, a vegetarian main course with house-made cheese, refers to a nubby textured cloth. The best person to ask about what's within the quotation marks is Mr. Oza himself, whom I've seen on every visit. I recommend sitting at the bar and ordering one of his Indian-themed cocktails, then asking for wine-pairing suggestions as you decide on dinner. Oza's restaurant radar will go off. If it's early, he'll come out of the kitchen to see who's there, with a look that says, "You may fire when ready, Gridley." Ask him about the quotes.
Curry Craft Indian Restaurant & Bar
2915 W. Cary St., 358-0350 or currycraft.com
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, noon to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Dinner, $13 to $19, Lunch, $9 to $13