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Belly Up

Honest to Goodness

Henna Offers Indian Unadorned

Henna Restaurant

This location is closed

By Susan Fradkin | Posted 5/2/2001

I've been thinking this week that, while I don't lead a charmed life, I'm certainly leading an interesting one--or maybe it's leading me. I've been mostly lucky in my culinary adventures too. On a few occasions, my fellow diners have made the evening extraordinary. Once, in New York, my family and I were literally swept off the sidewalk and into an Asian wedding feast by ecstatic relatives of the bride. Something of the sort happened to C.C. and me on a recent Saturday night. We'd been to see an Iranian film, which was full of women wearing billowing veils. An hour later, we walked into Henna Restaurant and found ourselves in a sea of saris at a festive birthday celebration.

The parents of the birthday girl, who must have been about 5 years old, were a handsome couple, he in dark suit and handlebar mustache, she in flowing white silks. We sat, sipping sodas and munching on a basket of Indian flatbreads cut and fried into crackers, and watched the guests arrive. Most came forward to greet the host couple. But when an old woman hobbled in on the arm of what looked like her daughter or daughter-in-law, the father hurried forward to greet her, taking her small hands, kissing her on both cheeks, leading her to a seat of honor at the far end of the room. Later in the evening, another grandmother arrived and settled in with her family next to our table. They weren't part of the birthday crowd, but their youngest, a girl of about 10, got pulled into the cake-cutting festivities. Cake was brought to their table, and then the first grandmother was brought over. The two old women, both in saris the color of pale ivory, kissed one another on both cheeks. A chair was moved so they could sit and talk. It was a beautiful small moment, made more so for encapsulating that thing rarely seen in this country now, reverence for age.

And so the meal passed for us in a sort of happy daze, and we didn't mind that some of the dishes on the small menu were unavailable, or that service was mostly geared toward the 50-odd party guests.

Oh, yes, about the food. Henna's serves Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Go now, before they decide to Westernize and tone down the searing heat in the karahi.

Soup wasn't available when we sat down to eat, neither the chicken corn nor the soup du jour (both $2), so we started with an order of fiery pakoras ($2.50), a dozen fritters composed of peas and onions and spice in an orange-colored chickpea batter. Most Indian restaurants serve both a fiery coriander chutney and a sweet tamarind sauce for dipping; Henna's only serves the former, and it will clear your head in an instant. The samosas ($2), two small pies containing peas and potatoes, were freshly fried, crisp, and delicious, a good appetizer for those wary of strong spice.

For her main course, C.C. had a biryani, a sweet rice dish composed of meat or seafood and nuts and fruit. There is no seafood biryani at Henna, at least not yet, so C.C. asked for the chicken ($9.99). She got a huge twin-handled serving dish containing well-prepared basmati rice, snippets of fresh herbs (most noticeably coriander), plenty of chopped almonds, some cashews, caramelized onions, barely discernible dried apricot, and a half-dozen tender hunks of chicken. C.C., who adores fresh coriander and prefers her biryani on the savory rather than sweet side, was delighted. "I would definitely come back for this," she said, tucking bits of rice and chicken into the pieces of nan bread that accompanied our meal. She sipped her mango lassi ($2.25), a cooling fruit-flavored yogurt drink, with relish.

My own choice, the kebab karahi ($9.99), was served in a copper-bottomed bowl. The kebab itself, of lean ground beef, had a hearty, grilled taste. But what made the dish was the sauce--more of a thick paste, really--of searing hot chilies, tomato, coriander, and sizable parings of ginger. Lip-tingling but divine. I made use of the accompanying plate of raw veggies to cool the heat.

Of the four desserts listed, only one, the kheer (Indian rice pudding, $2), was available, so we shared a dish and drank cups of milky, mildly sweet cardamom tea ($1). The kheer was cold but not sweet, and lacked the cinnamon and vanilla flavors one usually finds. Like the rest of our meal, this dish struck me as honest and unadorned, the way you might find it in someone's kitchen.

It had been a lovely day, full of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of other worlds. We had spent relatively little and came away with a lot, including pakoras and biryani for the next day's lunch.

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