Indica is a new look at Pittsburgh's Indian Cuisine

Indica Indian Bistro
257 North Craig Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Good Indian restaurants are hard to find in Pittsburgh. Like Chinese food, Indian food is often served as a cheap takeout dish (or in some cases, half-priced) that?s doled out like mashed potatoes at a school cafeteria. When you buy low-quality Chinese food it comes in a mysterious brown sauce. Low-quality Indian food is much the same. A restaurant will keep virtually the same spice blend for all dishes. In a city like this, where most Indian food is the same spicy vegetable mush served by disgruntled wait staffers, Oakland?s newest Indian restaurant, Indica Indian Bistro, provides hope for the hungry.

Indica opened its doors on March 22 and is the brainchild of CMU alumnus Ram Kondur (?93), who hopes to open many more restaurants like it. The restaurant is located in a small old house on Craig Street, which has been renovated. Upstairs there is a large party room, while the main dining area is on the lower level. The dining room is decorated in muted earthy tones with elegant Indian artwork adorning the walls. Indica caters to a more discerning clientele than the average Indian restaurant, and the crowd in the restaurant was considerably older than most spots in Oakland when visited last week.
Besides its food, Indica shines for many reasons. First, its service is considerably better than any other Indian restaurant in Pittsburgh. Secondly, they do not ask you how spicy you want your order on a scale of 1?10. The existence of this scale is neither helpful to the customers (who always order the wrong level) nor the cooks (who don?t give dishes the correct amount of spiciness to best bring out flavor). Instead Indica modestly marks its spicy dishes as such on the menu. Finally, not only are all of Indica?s dishes made fresh and to order, but the recipes are one-of-a-kind. Indica highlights modern Indian cooking by being inventive.

Indica is not afraid to modify old classics, such as the paper-thin lentil and rice crepes called dosas which the restaurant turns into dosa crisps: spicy spring rolls with a dosa exterior. The menu is a good blend of Indian classics (such as vegetable biryani) and more inventive and diverse dishes. Owner Ram Kondur attributes this medley to the fact that over 80 percent of his recipes are family secrets.

Indica has a good array of beverages from the spiced limeade, nimbu pani, to the ever-present mango lassi. The wine list had some appealing wines, but I went for the mango margarita. The drink selection at Indica, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, is very good but with prices to match. The mango margarita was good, but it could have been had elsewhere at a fraction of the $6.50 price.

The menu as a whole was very impressive. Wanting to experiment, I went for the tandoori mushroom appetizers and dosa crisps. Indica?s ?spicy? marker on foods is quite accurate: Speaking as someone who grew up on Indian food, I say both dishes were quite hot. Underneath the heat, however, were more complex flavors. The crisps, an interesting variation on the spring roll, and the mushrooms, fresh from the tandoori oven, came with little slices of cucumber and tomato to cut the heat. Both of these dishes were inventive: They had the creative spark that can excite even the most hardened Indian restaurant patron simply because they do new things with old classics. This type of creativity is rare in Pittsburgh but something that good Indian cooks are not afraid to play around with, resulting in new and exciting dishes.

My entree, the vegetarian tikka, was composed of cauliflower, tomatoes, bell peppers, and paneer ? a firm Indian cheese ? served on a sizzling plate. Almost as exciting as the entree were the extras served with it. The entrees at Indica come with rice, dal, a vegetable (in my case broccoli), raita, and a side salad. The extras were enough to turn a single dish into a full meal; one dish was enough for myself and my companion. Care was put into these extra side dishes so that they complemented and rounded out. The tikka dish I ordered was well spiced, flavorful without being too hot, and very fresh. The paneer had a chewy meaty texture, indicating that it had been cooked to perfection. When first looking at the menu the high prices ($13?16 per entree) seemed daunting, but once the food came out it was apparent where that money was going. Indica serves up generous portions with all the fixings. One entree plus the salad, dal, vegetable, and rice was plenty for my friend and me.

For the budget-conscious or the very hungry, Indica serves a lunch buffet from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Again, while the price ($9) seems a bit high, the quality of the food is worth the extra money. The lunch buffet is a lavish spread providing diners with fresh salad, bread and rice, at least four vegetable dishes, appetizers, a couple of meat dishes, and dessert. The buffet features Indian standards, as well as some of Indica?s own creations. The pakoras (small fried vegetable dumplings) were crispy and hot, and the traditional eggplant cooked in tamarind sauce was soft and flavorful. When sampling the vegetable dishes, I thought each one was better than the last. The buffet is a wonderful find: While lunch places in Oakland abound, it is rare to find one with such a good variety and high level of quality in its buffet food.

If you often eat at Indian restaurants in Pittsburgh, Indica is not the restaurant you will be expecting. It?s not fast, it?s not cheap, all the food doesn?t have the same spice mixture, and they won?t ask how hot you want your food on a scale of 1?10. What Indica does do is get creative with traditional Indian cooking to serve up complex new dishes that are worth both the cost and the walk down Craig Street.