Point of Departure 

Rethink the drive to Short Pump for dinner.

click to enlarge food28_lehja_300.jpg

Someone well-connected in the culinary scene in town recently told me that the restaurant critics for this magazine liked places only in the Fan. Ridiculous, I thought. Clearly this man doesn't read our reviews very closely, or often.

Not long after, I come across a comment on the restaurant website Urbanspoon that expressed skepticism about trying Lehja, the new Indian restaurant at Short Pump Town Center: “I mean, you are eating at the mall, right?”

I can't deny that I wholly agree with the poster, Edward D. Would mall dining — those dreary offerings of the food court and big-box chain restaurants — exist if not to enable us to shop for shoes and pick out new throw pillows in the same afternoon? With Mr. Fan's reprimand on my mind, though, it occurs to me that maybe I've been short-sighted. Is it possible I've wrongly dismissed some perfectly good grub just because it's next door to the Pottery Barn? With new resolve to be more open-minded, I head out to Short Pump to try Lehja.

The name means “excellent style” in Hindi, according to the managing partner, Sandeep “Sunny” Baweha, and indeed the decked-out space bears no resemblance to the stereotypical strip-mall dive that serves oily chicken tikka masala under dated pictures of the Taj Mahal. Here you find a large patio with an open-flame fire pit (but beware of the flies), a Southern California vibe inside with lots of black, white and lime green, and a nod to Southeast Asia with red and gold walls and pretty beading separating the booths. The bar area is very mod too, in all black leather and neon lighting, a little oasis of cool in the desert of mallness.

Looking past aesthetics, the heart and soul of the operation really comes through in the care taken with the food, which is of (mostly) excellent quality, and in the sweet and attentive service. I haven't experienced nicer staff in this town, and certainly not in the Fan. On both visits, we have multiple servers including the manager attending to our every anticipated need: kid-friendly plastic cups of water; extra hot rice when the old bowl needs replenishing; multiple inquiries about the flavor and temperature of the food; and insistence that we not box up our own leftovers. All of this is accomplished without seeming intrusive, and with the utmost cheeriness.

The food is just as pleasurable, in large part because of the refreshing diversity of the menu. When Baweha and seasoned restaurateur Ashok Arora were creating Lehja's menu, they looked beyond the classic northern Indian cuisine of their native Punjab, which is the focus of sister restaurant Nawab in Hampton Roads. Chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken are well-represented (aside from one burned piece of meat we're served) but you'll also find southern Indian delicacies such as vegetable kozhambu — a zesty curry dish — and western Indian dishes such as Goa-style lamb vindaloo.

Other entree highlights include the chicken korma, in a rich cashew-cream sauce with hints of lemon grass and fennel, and the outstanding house kebabs. The kebab medley of chicken tikka, jumbo shrimp (just one), yogurt-y salmon and an out-of-this world chunk of seasoned lamb are cooked to perfection, accompanied by tasty roasted vegetables and makhni (tomato-butter) sauce.

You won't miss samosas in the appetizer lineup, which instead includes revelations such as a chaat, the chef's daily street-food special of chickpeas, potatoes, lentils and fried flatbread in a sweet and tangy tamarind-yogurt sauce. The shiitake-leek potato patties broiled with cheddar are savory and satisfying, though the garnish of previously frozen mango chunks is superfluous.

The best deals are to be had at lunch, where you can score naan, rice, a side salad, and your choice from five meat or vegetarian entrees for around $10. Dinner is a good bit pricier, but you getting what you pay for: Lehja may be at the mall, but the quality of this operation is uptown all the way.

Lehja ($$)
11800 W. Broad St., Suite 910
Short Pump Town Center
364-1111
lehja.com
Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sunday noon-3 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-10:30 p.m.
Handicapped accessible
Nonsmoking, except on the patio

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