Indica Indian Bistro | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Indica Indian Bistro

Location: 257 N. Craig St., Oakland. 412-605-0500
Hours: Lunch: Tue.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. noon-3 p.m.
Dinner: Tue.-Fri. 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. 5:30-10 p.m.
Prices: Weekday buffet lunch $6.99 (takeout box) and $8.99 (eat-in); weekend buffet lunch $9.99; appetizers $4.99-8.99; entrees $12.99-18.99
Fare: Indian
Atmosphere: Understated elegance
Liquor: Partial Bar

The first indication that Indica, the new Indian restaurant on Craig Street, is not just another curry house is the name. Here in Pittsburgh, you've got yer gardens and you've got yer palaces, but how many Indian establishments claim the title "bistro," with all the intimacy and sophistication that that implies? Until six months ago, an appetite for Indian food seemed irreconcilable with elegant dining by candlelight. Not anymore -- not since the opening of Indica.

Sure, Indica has a lunch buffet, but beyond that, it exists outside the usual Indian restaurant expectations. The family-run establishment is located in a handsomely restored Romanesque house long predating Craig Street's commercial days, painted warm spice colors to set off the gleaming oak woodwork inside. Gorgeous botanical paintings on the walls are specially commissioned copies of works by an anonymous Indian folk artist. The effect is one of eating in the home of a friend with beautiful taste and such a passion for food, he has turned his every room into a dining room.

Rather than an encyclopedic list of Indian fare from aloo to uddapam, Indica achieves variety through a limited menu that changes often. And you won't hear your waiter ask how spicy you'd like your food on a scale of 1-10. Indica believes that "spicy" and "hot" are two different concepts, and prides itself on offering dishes that are spicy -- i.e. flavorful -- without causing the five-alarm siren to sound.

Our appetizers bore this out. The "ethnic sampler" consisted of an assortment of South Indian finger foods. Vada, or lentil doughnut, was fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside, and frankly better than those we've had at expressly South Indian establishments. Masala vada was a sort of chick-pea fritter, with a similar texture to the lentil vada enhanced by bits of onion, garlic and chopped fresh herbs. And mirchi bajji, banana peppers stuffed with sweet and sour chutney, were deep-fried in a fine, light batter that wasn't the least bit greasy. Our other appetizer, kheema samosa, was a crisp fried pastry filled with ground lamb which was dry -- again, not greasy -- and spicy without being searing.

Though our entrees came with rice, we could not resist ordering garlic nan, that hearty Indian flatbread. Indica's was airy on the inside, toasty on the outside, and scattered with plenty of fresh garlic and some chopped cilantro for extra zing.

Our entrees also came with a salad and dal -- lentil stew -- as well as a cooked vegetable and rice. The salad of lettuce, red onion, carrot, black olives and chick peas was drizzled with a delicate lemon dressing. The dal was soupy -- it was, in fact, served in bowls rather than dolloped on the side -- and punctuated with aromatic whole spices.

We each ordered entrees we'd never seen before at other local Indian restaurants. Angelique's chicken haryal was substantial chunks of boneless bird marinated and cooked in a complex paste of herbs and spices. The chicken was tender, though a little dry, its mild flavor enhanced but not overwhelmed by the haryal preparation which included spinach, mint, garlic, ginger, chili and coriander.

After much dithering, Jason settled on andhra catfish. Three medallions of tender, fresh catfish fillet were smothered in a spicy, tangy terra cotta-colored tamarind sauce that had the smooth, thick texture of cream without the heavy richness.

Both entrees were accompanied by tiny broccoli florets cooked with onion and whole spices and served cold. Though we couldn't argue with the concept, a heavy hand with the salt kept us from enjoying this otherwise delightful side to its fullest.

Indian cuisine was forever changed by centuries of coexistence with the British, and the dessert we shared at Indica embodies that odd fusion: mango trifle. This quintessentially English construct of custard, fruit and liqueur-soaked sponge cake takes on a distinctively subcontinental character when colored pale orange by mango, studded with whole grapes, and sprinkled with chopped nuts.

Indica's strength is offering Continental elegance without recourse to overly fanciful fusion preparations or trendy, esoteric ingredients. Instead, Indica showcases classic Indian fare in a fine dining setting within one of Pittsburgh's most beautiful restaurant buildings. We welcome and applaud this trend -- also apparent at Shadyside's Typhoon -- of ethnic dining taken beyond its white-walls-and-kitschy-prints milieu.

Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars