Until recently, Indian food was about as hard to find in the Far West End as a plot of undeveloped land. That, however, is starting to change. Among those responsible for this much-welcomed uptick in the availability of such alluring culinary treats as naan, samosas and biryani is year-old Anokha Unique Cuisine of India — sister restaurant to the well-established Milan Indian Cuisine of Charlottesville and Lynchburg — owned by partners Jaswinder Singh and Charanjeet Ghotra.
The word Anokha means "unique," and this inviting and open shopping-center eatery is just that. Things here are decidedly hip, modern and all about East-meets-West. Lunch-goers, for example, kick things off with soup or a garden salad instead of the more traditional pappadam. And while the latter was missed, delicious nonetheless was the light, well-balanced, whole-chili-infused, coconut-lime soup that began my lunch. The salad was less exciting, though. While providing fresh greens, tomatoes and peppers, it was nothing out of the ordinary, and promised maple flavors in the vinaigrette were so subtle as to be completely missed.
Anokha's beverages run the gamut as well. In fact, one is as likely to find a prosecco, cosmopolitan or single-malt Scotch on the list of offerings as an Indian tea or mango lassi. Beer lovers, though, will appreciate the four different (and tasty) Indian varieties available.
Even further evidence of Anokha's globe-hopping nature comes in the area of dessert offerings. From the ranks of the more traditional and expected, the moist, coconut-sliver-accented rice pudding hits the spot with its creamy goodness, a touch of cardamom and a pleasant balance of sweetness. Equally as good, though, is the less expected (and certainly more Western) chocolate lava cake — it was ultra-moist and super-chocolaty.
Back in the realm of the traditional, lovers of paneer — the fresh cheese so often found with this cuisine — will enjoy the treatment it is provided by the able kitchen of Anokha. The paneer pakora appetizer delivers fried medallions of the star ingredient artfully (and deliciously) presented with bright, crisp greens; a sweet, date-tamarind chutney; and a spiced-up tomato-sauce drizzle. The malai kofta, meanwhile, offers an enticing mélange of paneer dumplings with raisins, cashews, a mild, creamy sauce and a mound of perfectly cooked, aromatic basmati rice served alongside.
Seafood receives fine treatment from the back of the house as well. Plump and cooked to an ideal doneness, the sea scallops in the Goan curry are delicious. Deft here is the balance between coconut flavor and chili-pepper kick, ensuring that the sweet, briny flavor of the ultra-fresh scallops isn't overwhelmed.
Highly recommended for lovers of hearty meat offerings is the lamb-mushroom curry. While more of the button mushrooms would have been welcome, there are no complaints otherwise; the morsels of lamb were plentiful and tender, and the aromas and flavors of both the earthy, complex spice blend and the whole curry leaves were terrific.
Where quality took a bit of a dip was in the tandoori chicken tikka masala. The accompanying crisp medley of broccoli, cauliflower, onion, asparagus and bell pepper was fine indeed, but the breast meat was somewhat overdone and fairly dry, leaving me to wish there was more piquant makhani (butter) sauce on the plate to improve matters.
The staff at Anokha couldn't be better. The black-clad troop provides effortless, thorough service and knows the menu well. On two separate visits with my family, they even entertained the kids by playing games with them, something truly appreciated by those such as myself attempting to enjoy a fine meal with kiddies in tow.
Though the number of competitors is on the rise, Anokha seems well positioned to withstand and shine. The place is fresh, inviting and comfortable. Most important, though, the fare is affordable, consistent and just plain good.
Before all is said and done, Short Pump might just see its reputation shift — at least a little — away from that of big-chain central toward one of Indian-food destination. Should that happen, Anokha would be a big part of the reason why.
4015 Lauderdale Drive, 360-8686
Prices: Lunch entrées $8 to $11, desserts $3 to $5. Dinner appetizers $4 to $9, breads and accompaniments $2 to $4, entrées $11 to $19, desserts $4 to $6.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.