Monday, April 7, 2014

Behind the Beaded Curtain

Forgive me, Sanjay, for I went without you.

My good friend Sanjay has been trying for years to get me to go to Lehja with him. Easy for him to say because he lives in the far west end, but not so easy for me to schlep from downtown to the fake Short Pump Town Center.

The way I see it, you have to have a town in order to have a town center and there is no, I repeat no, town anywhere to be seen.

What I saw on the way out was every chain restaurant and big box store I try to avoid.

But Sanjay had told me that Lehja was it for Indian food, and after tasting their dishes at Broad Appetit I knew he was right, so that's where we went tonight.

The host managed to refer to us as "guys" twice before even getting to our table, but I let that slide. Looking around the dining room, I took in the colorful elements - a zebra-striped floor, gold and red paisley walls, deep ocher yellow back walls, white tables and chairs, a squiggle design ceiling and plastic hanging bead curtains between booths and tried to figure it out.

A-ha! Decor-wise, it was a distillation of the VMFA's 2012 exhibit, "Maharaja: The Splendors of India's Great Kings," not that there was anything wrong with that.

Our server was an eager beaver, showing up at the table what seemed like every two minutes to inquire if we were ready to order. Given the tome-like wine list, this was going to take a while.

With Indian trance music pulsing, my companion eventually chose a Falanghina, a distinctive grape I'd discovered a few years ago but see too infrequently on wine lists. The ideal accompaniment to Indian food.

We began with a fish course of roasted Chilean sea bass in a coastal southern Indian spice blended tomato sauce with an upma cake, which, if you ask me, is nothing more than Indian polenta or grits. Or maybe porridge. You get the idea.

With it, we had the coconut curry scallops (our server's favorite, he made sure we knew), three enormous, beautifully seared scallops with spiced coconut curry and masala-dusted leeks, a dish we were told is the favorite of staffs from a bunch of RVA restaurant people, including Acacia and restaurant of the year, Dutch & Co.'s crew.

It wasn't hard to see why.

Our server was determined, trying to move us along and order efficiently and since we had no later plans, our intention was quite opposite to his.

Once he finally got the picture, he backed off somewhat, but he wasn't going to be satisfied until we place our order.

Bowing to server pressure, we went for Goan lamb vin d'alho - garlic and vinegar marinated lamb in chili tomato sauce- and biryani, a delicately seasoned basmati rice rice with braised goat and a yogurt cucumber sauce. When our server asked about heat, I specified medium, resulting him saying with resignation, "American hot."

It may not sound like an insult but it was.

The brick of biryani that arrived would have fed an Indian family of six (come on, Sanjay, you know I'm right) but was full of delicious goat meat on the bone, a satisfying pleasure not easily found.

All around us gringos sat Indians and while it's good to know that the food meets their standards, we definitely stood out like sore thumbs, me even more so as the sole female in the place.

Needless to say, I couldn't finish my food and our accommodating server asked,'Would you like to box me?" to which we agreed.

He scored even more cute points after we had poured the last of the bottle into our glasses and he came over to finish it off. Taking the bottle in hand, he poured the last two drops in my glass, a wholly unnecessary gesture which I had to question.

"Because you are pretty," he said, smiling widely. Right.

After declining dessert (in my family you didn't get dessert if you didn't finish your dinner and neither of us had), we moved to the bar for a last drink.

I was impressed to see a handful of Virginia wines on the list - Horton, Cooper, Barboursville, Rappahannock- but we decided on an Indian wine because where else would we get such a thing?

Sula Vineyards Chenin Blanc had a nose of oyster shells and a hint of peach, a surprising offering our bartender told us was only available in Virginia at Lehja.

After asking if we were wine lovers, we dove into a conversation about his dilemma of trying to choose wine for nearby corporate customers (big, muscular California wines) and savvy, in-the-know wine geeks (Washingtonian's Todd Kliman had been much impressed with his French offerings), no easy compromise.

Needless to say, I loved it when he said he was planning to have a separate page in the wine list for Virginia wines because he thought it was important to highlight local producers.

My hero.

By the time we left Dante's ninth circle of Hell, aka Short Pump, I felt quite sure it would be many moons before I returned.

That said, on the way back from a show or winery in Charlottesville, there are far worse places to stop than Lehja and I'm inclined to remember that next time I'm driving east and hungry.

Call me shallow, but there aren't many places where I can be referred to as "American hot" and pretty in the same evening.

If you'd told me that part, Sanjay, I'd have come out a long time ago.

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