Location: 3936 Monroeville Blvd., Monroeville. 412-372-0804. www.billusindiangrill.com
Hours: Lunch buffet Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. dinner Tue.-Thu. & Sun. 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $3-7; entrees $8-21
Fare: Northern Indian with tandoori specialty
Atmosphere: Fluorescent-lit but warmly welcoming
Want to open an ethnic restaurant featuring the cuisine of your homeland, but not sure what to call it? Here's an easy formula: Take the name of the country whose food you'll be serving and add it to a noun connoting an idyllic setting, such as "Palace." Alternatively, a short, catchy word from your native language, or the name of a famous place from your country, could serve double-duty as a title, evoking the uniqueness of your culture and, by extension, cuisine.
But few ethnic restaurants are eponymous. Naming a restaurant after its owner or chef is a custom usually reserved for swankier establishments with star power to trade on, whereas ethnic restaurants -- around these parts, anyway -- are more often the brave ventures of recent immigrants working tirelessly and, usually, anonymously behind the scenes. That's why Billu's Indian Grill caught our eye. Who was Billu, and what made his Indian food so special? We wanted to know, so off to Monroeville we went.
And sure enough, when we entered Billu's small storefront, tucked around the side of a nondescript building in a back channel off the William Penn Highway, Amarjit Singh Billu himself -- wearing a chef's shirt with "Billu" stitched on the chest -- came out to greet us. Not only was this an appreciated, personal introduction to the restaurant, but it was also a preview of the hospitality we enjoyed with our meal.
The menu is straightforward and mostly familiar, with a focus on dhaba, or Punjabi-style cooking, and the tandoor. We began with papdi chat, an Indian street snack which has been making its way onto local sit-down menus of late. In concept, it resembles nachos: toppings of various flavors and textures layered over crisp, finger-friendly chips of fried flat bread, creating a sloppy, gloppy, delicious pile. Billu's version included firm, spiced chick peas, soft cooked potato, creamy homemade yogurt and juicy lettuce. Spicy cilantro and sweet tamarind chutneys, served on the side, allowed us to adjust the flavor profile of the mild ingredients and customize each bite.
Fried catfish, its batter golden with turmeric and flecked with Indian spices, was, as promised on the menu, "fried to perfection." Flaky on the inside, crispy on the outside, and subtly but unmistakably flavored with the seasonings of the subcontinent, it was quite simply among the best specimens of this fish we have ever had, in or out of an Indian setting.
Angelique considers herself pretty fluent in Indian restaurant menus, so when she saw chicken kadhai, a dish new to her, she leapt at the chance to add it to her repertoire. Cooked on the bone in the bowl-like Indian cooking pot, similar to a wok, for which the dish is named, the chicken was extremely moist, tender and flavorful in its own right. The stew-like, tomato-based sauce was mild, making this a good dish for diners shy of Indian spice. (Billu's does not employ the usual customs of using menu symbols denoting spiciness, or of asking patrons for their spice tolerance on a scale of 1-10.)
The length and breadth of the tandoori list attested to chef Billu's specialty. Among other things, Billu's offers barah kebab -- lamb chops roasted in the fiery-hot clay oven -- something else we haven't seen before in our Indian restaurant rounds. They were out the night we dined, but that just gave Jason an excuse to try the tandoori mixed grill.
The mixed grill included another atypical tandoori item, salmon. Cut into chunks, the fish was charred yet succulent, a joint testament to the fire of the tandoor and the fatty goodness of the fish. Chicken was served in two formats: the familiar coral-colored dark meat on the bone, which was good, and chunks of boneless white meat tikka masala, which was near wonderful, the relatively subtle spicing playing deliciously off the hearty char. Shrimp were adequate, but a bit overdone -- a real problem with such delicate flesh in such fierce heat -- but the seekh kabob of spicy minced lamb was far better than most, with an interior moistness that really brought out the distinctive lamb flavor.
Like most Indian restaurants, Billu's is vegetarian-friendly, but just because the dishes are meat-free doesn't mean they are light. Our palak paneer appeared to contain almost as much oil as it did spinach. But the flavor redeemed any concerns about our arteries. Sweetness from a symphony of warm spices and onions cooked almost to caramelization played off the earthy, vegetal bass notes of the spinach, while a certain spiciness, subtle at first, built with every bite. Cubes of paneer, a mild Indian cheese, provided firm satisfying texture.
Indian is one cuisine which has not, happily, been subject to the dumbing-down of national chains, but is still the province of locally owned, predominantly immigrant-run enterprises. This makes it easy, when in Monroeville, to push past the national name brands for Billu's Indian Grill, where the welcome is warm and the tandoor is hot.