Location: 2201 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-626-6116
Hours: Sun.-Sat. 11 a.n.-11 p.m.
Atmosphere: Candle-lit, casual, convivial
Fifteen years ago, Atwood Street in Oakland was Pittsburgh's international strip, offering an enticing line-up of some of the city's more-intriguing global dining spots. The restaurants were intimate and cheap, and their proximity to one another allowed diners to meet up on the sidewalk and window-shop for a cuisine.
Today, with Atwood still going strong, its foods-of-all-nations vibe has made a leap over to Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. Once the address primarily of renowned pizzerias, delis and kosher restaurants, Murray now seems to sprout a new cuisine every couple months. The latest addition -- replacing a fixture of a former deli -- is an Indian restaurant, Coriander.
The restaurant's eye-glazingly epic menu was redeemed by its exciting subsections. The heading "Our House Specialties from Goa" suggested the owners' own native culinary tradition in the vast and diverse Indian subcontinent. Further sections featured signature dishes of other regions, such dosa Andhra, from one or two states east. The seafood list, perfunctory at most Indian restaurants, here was long and detailed; in addition to the now-ubiquitous inclusion of shrimp and salmon from the tandoor, lobster was available in a few dishes. Oh, and "chaat corner"? Save us a spot!
Our usual strategy at Indian restaurants is to order a familiar dish or two as a way of gauging competence at foods we know well, but in this case, there were too many new things to try. First up was fried idli, from the children's menu. And kudos to a kids' menu that disposes with the buttered noodles and chicken nuggets to offer kid-friendly selections of adult food, such as idli and chicken tikka.
Idli is a kind of rice cake, and Coriander's version consisted of a large, steamed patty that had been fried and then cut into chunks, so that each piece offered crisp and moist sides, lightly sauced. Alongside was a mix of crunchy, roasted chana dal (a chickpea-like lentil) with minced veggies. We'll be honest: This is food for adventurous kids, not least because it is a little spicy. Hard-boiled egg pakora -- deep-fried in a tempura-like batter -- bore a decided resemblance to that English pub classic, Scotch eggs, but without the sausage. As fried blobs of protein go, we'll take pakora over chicken nuggets any day.
From the chaat menu -- savory snacks, often served from street carts -- we ordered one we'd never seen before, bhel. Unlike other chaats we've had, which resemble nothing so much as Indian nachos, bhel was a sort of cold, grain-based salad that reminded us of tabbouleh. It featured fluffy grains of puffed rice in a light, vinegary dressing with diced cucumber, tomato, onion,and herbs. The spicing was unmistakably Indian, but the dish served as a reminder of how cuisines across the globe can rhyme.
Chicken Chetinad was also new to us, although the menu description -- ginger, garlic and ground spices -- seemed to list the ingredients of most Indian dishes. And, indeed, we found the dense sauce around the chicken hard to differentiate from other curries -- thicker, perhaps, but of a similar profile. The chicken itself did have a good texture. Its white meat held up well, as opposed to the more common dark-meat chunks that are tender but cook down to oblivion.
Of the nearly a dozen dosas offered by Coriander, we chose the Mysore masala, a spicier version of the South Indian classic filled with potatoes and onions. The dosa itself -- an oversized crepe of rice batter, crisped on one side and rolled around its filling -- was more flavorful than some we've had, its golden surface studded with red and brown spices. The filling was tasty as well, although we wished for more; the ends of the rolled dosa were empty. What we enjoyed most was the sambhar, which is like a hearty vegetable soup served alongside as a condiment. Its thick broth coated the dosa admirably while the occasional chunks of bell pepper added bursts of veggie brightness.
The menu's focus on seafood appeared to stem from its Goan inflection, so we tried shrimp xacuti, a Goan stew characterized by fat little chili peppers. The shrimp were remarkably tender, butterflied to capture as much of the spicy sauce as possible.
Our one concession to familiarity was lamb biryani, overflowing with basmati rice intensely infused with warm spicy flavors. In fact, its heat was surprisingly high for a dish that's usually mild. Chunks of lamb were tender and tasty, but so few as to cause us to ration the bites that contained them. But what we really missed were the fried onions that, for us, make biryani great. There were a few scattered about, but not enough to make a big impression.
Service at Coriander was at times slow and imperfect, and we think the menu could be made less overwhelming by a focus on the kitchen's specialty dishes. But with the suburbs lately outstripping the city in their offerings of good Indian food, we welcome the addition of Coriander to Squirrel Hill's international row.