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REVIEW: At Lehja, Indian cuisine goes beyond Americanized staples 

click to enlarge The crab scallop meljol features two seared scallops and lump crab meat in a buttery tomato sauce.

Scott Elmquist

The crab scallop meljol features two seared scallops and lump crab meat in a buttery tomato sauce. 

If you follow food politics, you're aware of the ongoing discussion about ethnic food. The argument is that Americans tend to pay more for cuisine from European lands, but want cheap eats from browner countries like Mexico, Korea and India. This discrimination shows up in subtle distinctions like labeling food from Italy, France or Germany as international, and dismissing many Asian and Latino foods as ethnic.

Places like Enrique Olvera's Pujol in Mexico City, David Chang's Momofuku empire and Virginia's own Peter Chang chain are changing the narrative by elevating their ethnic cuisines. The dining experience is high-end, with dishes created by well-trained chefs riffing on cultural touchstones.

At Lehja, owner and executive chef Sandeep "Sunny" Baweja is enthusiastically elevating Indian food in the same way.

This is not simply high-priced curry served on fine china alongside a cloth napkin. Baweja tweaks and updates traditional preparations and ingredients from across the Indian subcontinent's many cuisines. The cocktail program is fresh and seasonal, and the extensive wine list, curated by Baweja, has won top wine-industry awards.

Always start with Lehja's chaat du jour. In India, chaat is a casual roadside snack. It's a catch-all term for an infinite number of possible ingredient combinations, traditionally including fried bread. Our savory chaat of the day blended textures, colors and flavors with crunchy bits of naan bread, puffed rice, mango, tart apple, red onion, pomegranate seeds and cilantro.

We enjoyed our chaat with a round of cocktails including the Snake Charmer, a surprising but inspired pairing of tequila and fresh ginger juice. It complemented the strong flavors of one of my favorite small plates: the gobhi manchurian. Three of us made quick work of the tender cauliflower florets fried in a rice flour batter and tossed in a tangy tomato-chili glaze.

The blue crab taka-tak successfully melds Chesapeake Bay blue crabs with a light dusting of ginger, turmeric, Himalayan rock salt and crushed pink Tellicherry pepper, spiked by bits of crunchy scallion and asparagus. This is exactly the kind of East-meets-West hybrid dish that Lehja does well.

Leaning decidedly more East, the Malvani rassa goat comes with bite-sized pieces of goat, tenderly braised on the bone. The meat stands up to the rich Malvani-style curry, which includes fresh coconut and a low-heat but complex masala, or blend, of 18 spices.

Some of the plating leaves room for improvement. The Malvani rassa goat, although delicious, is basically a bowl of red sauce, with goat pieces in the middle.

The crab scallop meljol combines two seared scallops and jumbo lump crab, flavored with an unusual combination of nigella and mace. The scallops are perfectly cooked, with the nigella adding a slight herbaceous edge to the buttery tomato sauce.

Patiala shahi lamb hanandi is a meltingly tender, slow-cooked leg of lamb, tempered by a rich green sauce of cumin, ginger, and coriander.

A vegan in our group is delighted to find many thoughtful dishes far better than half-hearted vegetable stir-fry or curry that many Asian restaurants offer. The pahadi baingan with eggplant, kale, tomatoes and fennel has depth of flavor created by the well-balanced blend of garlic, ginger, turmeric and lime combined with expert roasting.

The warm naan bread, cooked in the traditional tandoor oven, is brushed with butter. The roti — a similar style flatbread brushed with oil — is vegan friendly.

One of the true international joys of dining at Lehja is the wine list, especially if Baweja suggests the pairings. I would never have chosen the spätburgunder rosé from Germany, but I'm glad I trusted his judgment. It's much drier than traditional Provençal rosés, and that dry crispness cut nicely through the crab curry and chaat appetizers.

A full-bodied but dry German riesling from S.A. Prüm winery stands up to the strong flavors of our lamb and goat. The Sula Vineyards chenin blanc from Nashik, India, brings lighter notes to the eggplant dish.

For dessert, you can't go wrong with one of the flavorful kulfis. This traditional frozen, dairy-based Indian dessert is richer and denser than ice cream. Here, Lehja's plating shines, with a lovely molded pyramid of colored kulfi surrounded by pretty garnishes. It's the right size for one dessert lover, or two who want to share a few sweet bites after dinner.

The soft colors and banquette seating create an upscale atmosphere, but Baweja's ebullient hospitality sets the tone. He bounces from table to table, answering questions, suggesting wines and sharing stories. One of the best meals I've ever had was an off-menu private birthday party at Lehja for a friend, during which Baweja introduced every course.

The word Lehja in Urdu means accent or personal style, and the name accurately encompasses Baweja's food. This restaurant may not offer the exact dishes you know from traditional Indian food, though many recipes come from Baweja's own Punjabi background. But trust me, everyone will feel very cosmopolitan eating at Lehja. S

Lehja
11800 W. Broad St.
Mondays-Fridays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m.
Saturdays 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sundays noon-9 p.m.  
364-1111
lehja.com

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