(out of 4)
1475 S. Pearl St., 303-777-1533
The Draw Indian comfort food in a fine-dining setting.
The Drawback While the menu is extensive and satisfying, few dishes stand out.
Don't Miss Lamb sali boti, chana masala, mango chutney, Irish chai.
Price $$$ (average entrée $16-$25)
One of the best birthday presents I ever received was a do-it-yourself Indian cooking kit that included several round, silver tins of spices typically used in Indian cuisine. Cardamom. Coriander. Brown mustard seed. Working my way through a recipe for bhagari jhinga—shrimp in creamy, aromatic sauce—I grated fresh ginger, dry-roasted cumin seeds, and whirled a fragrant mix of spices together in the coffee grinder to make garam masala. Then, although I was fully concentrating on the recipe, I failed to make it come together into something edible. I tried again. And again. When I finally did manage to get the balance of spices just right, the hard-earned dish was amazing.
All of which is to say that I appreciate the alchemy that goes into Indian cooking. This is a cuisine in which four or eight or even 12 herbs and spices are combined to create a profusion of flavors in which no single element calls attention to itself. In the best Indian dishes, the spices don't compete; they complement, and the whole is worth far more than the sum of its parts. It's like looking at a beautiful painting and not seeing cobalt blue or cadmium yellow or burnt sienna, but an integrated landscape that transports you someplace new.
All restaurants, of course, must get the blend of ingredients just right. But I believe the bar is higher for a restaurant like India's Pearl, whose owner, Harpinder Purewal, 54, is trying to move Indian cuisine out of the casual category and into the more rarified world of fine dining. In doing so, Purewal chose to blend traditional and modern ingredients in unique ways: belly dancing with a martini bar; tandoori with beef and other meats you don't typically see in Indian cuisine. Her vision was influenced, in part, by the tastes of her own children, who were raised in America.
Does India's Pearl reach these lofty, heights? Not entirely—although, at first glance, the restaurant is impressive.
India's Pearl, located a few heel clicks from Sushi Den on South Pearl, sports clean, modern lines, white tablecloths, live music, and a surprisingly hefty 300-bottle wine list. In addition, whereas many Indian restaurants seem to offer hard alcohol only as an afterthought, Purewal, who used to own a liquor store in Aurora, takes a different approach. Her menu of cocktails takes traditional Indian ingredients and shakes and stirs them into thoroughly American creations. My favorites include the slightly sweet lychee martini made with Stoli Vanilla and lychee liqueur, and a fragrant mango-ginger martini.
But while all the various pieces—the music, the martinis, the modernism—are laudable, they don't add up to a consistently magical whole. Yes, the environment leans toward elegant, but the elegance is eclipsed on weekends when the over-amped music from the bar upstairs interferes with conversation. Yes, the wine list is impressive, with wines from every major wine-producing region in the world. But with such an extensive list, I'd expect servers to direct me toward something unusual, like one of the Indian wines. Instead, I was steered toward a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Sonoma County Pinot Noir. Both complemented the spicy food, but why offer 300 bottles only to promote wine you can find anywhere?
The tendency to overreach is especially apparent on the menu, which lists more than 160 different dishes. While several pages of entrées are not uncommon for Indian restaurants, this variety is more than the kitchen can gracefully handle, especially when it comes to some of the more unexpected items.
For example, next to the predictable lineup of vegetarian samosas, chicken tandooris, and lamb vindaloos are dishes built around not only beef, but also quail, lobster, and pheasant. Normally, I'm a champion of challenging culinary boundaries, but the tandoori lobster malai was overcooked (as were all the seafood dishes I ordered), and the beef in the illachi beef pasanda—in which cubes of tandoori beef are cooked in a mildly spicy sauce—seemed in desperate need of a good marinade. In traditional pasandas, the meat is marinated for several hours in a complex blend of spices and yogurt, but here, the meat seemed like an afterthought. In fairness, the sauces that accompanied both dishes were lovely. The creamy spice and nuttiness of the malai paired well with the basmati rice, as did the luscious gravylike sauce that surrounded the beef.
Even regular standbys—chicken tikka masala and saag paneer—seemed to suffer from Purewal's jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach. I ordered the masala medium spicy, but instead the creamy orange sauce tasted bizarrely sweet and the chicken was tough. And the spinach and cheese in the saag paneer tasted flat.
There were a couple of standouts. The crunchy, wafer-thin pappadam starters, served with sweet tamarind, spicy cilantro, and chunky tomato chutneys, packed a lot of satisfaction into a few bites, and were perfect enjoyed with one of the cocktails.
The lamb sali boti also earned an A-plus for bringing tender Colorado lamb together with sautéed onions and tomatoes in a rich sauce that hinted of cloves, paprika, and cayenne. The sharp, clean flavors of the dish were offset by the unexpected addition of crispy straw potatoes tossed on top—plus chewy garlic naan ordered as a side.
The chana masala also received raves for turning unassuming garbanzo beans into a perfectly spiced side dish. We took our server's recommendation and ordered sweet mango chutney and cool yogurt raita as accompaniments, and both nicely cut the garbanzos' searing but savory heat.
But for a restaurant with more than 160 items on the menu, you'd expect more hits than misses. And for a place that aims to capture the fine-dining crowd, you'd expect more finely wrought cuisine.
In the end, I appreciate Purewal's ambition—and, judging from the mixed clientele, so do plenty of other Denverites—but India's Pearl fails to reach the heights to which it aspires. Perhaps a smaller menu, more focus on the food and service, and less emphasis on martinis and music would create the alchemy she's aiming for.