IT'S OFTEN the little things that take the longest. And IT TOOK some weeks for the breads at Indique to rise to the occasion, despite the visual showcasing of the tandoor oven (and the owners' long experience at the Bombay Bistros of Rockville and Vienna). But with the naan, the roti and especially the ethereal Ceylon paratha in good airy order, Indique bids quickly to become one of the most accomplished and ingratiating Indian kitchens in the area.
Indique's recipes, which range across many of the Asian subcontinent's regions, have a depth of flavor that rewards the deliberate taster more than the sensation-seeker. No wham-bam heat here, but spices thoroughly roasted and ground; onions simmered dry and nearly sweet and then mixed with tomatoes; pungent roasted peppercorns; the bitter-and-sweet one-two twist of fenugreek; the tang of tamarind juice; and the similarly sweet-sour kokum fruit so characteristic of Goanese cooking.
The steamed mussels are superb, with an addictive light coconut broth. The bangan bharta (stewed eggplant) is also fine, thick and rich with a near-caramelized undertone of onion. The spiced lamb shank is an unusual delight, not braised to the melting point, as Europeans prefer it, but with its muscle and meatiness firmly intact. And the shrimp and scallop masala has a delicacy, and a degree of precision in the simmering of the easily insulted scallops, that any chef would admire.
These pleasures are increased by the fact that Indique is a stunningly attractive restaurant, with walls of tandoori-rub bronze, upholstery in bronze stripes and patterns and sky-like inserts of blue above the atrium. "Aged" fresco murals -- something like "Ramayana" meets Pompeii -- and hanging sari cloths add color.
The upstairs dining room is divided into two balconies across an open foyer and is fenced in by latticework-carved marble like an ancient courtyard.
Presentation is detail-oriented, to say the least. The plates are handsome, mostly plain white -- which sets off the brilliantly colored food -- but often of unusual shapes and the occasional trendy tilt. Many of the stews are served in bowls, of course, but the entrees that are dished out in the kitchen show attention to both color and cut. The side dishes are as carefully cooked as the entrees, with distinct seasonings and textures. Many of the entrees are complemented with a variety of starches, each also perfectly tendered: a ramekin's worth of basmati rice, another of a tamarind-flavored version and a couscous-like semolina.
Chicken tikka mahkani, often called "butter chicken," is particularly good here, served in a dark, almost toasted tomato sauce. The chicken chettinad is a sharper dish, with a fragrant sauce of toasted and ground fresh peppercorns and tomatoes ("not for the faint-hearted," according to the menu, but it had a long glow rather than a scorch); it's served with cauliflower, broccoli florets and carrots, as well as the multigrains.
For milder tastes, and perhaps younger diners intrigued by dippables, try the appam stews. Appams are slightly fermented rice pancakes, flavored with a little coconut and cooked so as to be crispy at the edges and spongy in the middle; they are intended to be used, like Ethiopian injera, as simultaneous sops and spoons. (Any number of dishes might be scooped up by more proficient diners, but the management is not expecting Americans to be so deft. On the other hand, if you ask for instructions, the staff will be very pleased to explain.) Indique offers the appams with two stews, a chicken and a mild coconut milk vegetarian that is too mild until you mix in a dab of spanky carrot-colored coconut sambal (a southerly chili-spice blend).
As suggested, with so many layers of so many styles, the kitchen still sometimes struggles with synchronizing it all. Breads often come late in the meal (I'd have loved to sop the mussel broth but had to settle for more or less subtle spooning). The dosi, which are related to the appams, are fresh but oddly bland, the dal (lentil) element barely noticeable. The crab cakes are probably intended as a tribute to local specialties, but are not particularly memorable. The lamb vindaloo was tasty, but neither so hot nor so sour as it might have been, although the Goanese shrimp was both roasty-sweet and spicy.
The calamari ullarthiyathe has a great sauce, bright with ginger, chilies and mustard seed, but the squid itself was overdone and its flavor waning. The tandoori-grilled quail was a little overdone, too, but its main drawback was that it was served whole, with the breastbone intact, and so was both too large for elegant finger food and somewhat clumsy to eat with knife and fork. (This is the difficulty with the lamb shank. Although I was tempted to tear off a piece of bread, grab the bone end with it and saw something off, next time I would just skip even trying to deal with the knife and fork and carry the whole thing straight home for freehanded attack.) On the other hand, the quail displayed the attention paid to garnishes: It was served on a base of a tangy potato dish, something between aloo gobhi and potato salad.
And there are a few logistical difficulties to be smoothed over. Having the staircase open directly into the dining room is visually striking, but it also means the staff must come up the stairs with trays of food and hover by the hostess podium, which adds to a sense of elbowing and confusion. Indique also suffers from a lack of coat storage (there is one small closet downstairs), and the necessity of many customers' tossing their longer coats over the balcony rail certainly detracts from the elegant effect.