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Bold cuisine takes patrons to Spice 9 Indian Cuisine

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This decade bears the promise of confident Indian restaurants opening in the Charlotte area. Too often in the past, Indian restaurants presented timid dishes -- whispers of what they could be -- to non ex-pats.

But this is not so at Spice 9 Indian Cuisine, which opened last October in Concord. Co-owners Jagan Gundala, Sai Bommi (an abbreviated form of his last name) and Rajesh Turamala chose their eatery's name to reflect the cooking style of their kitchen. Gundala, a native of Hyderabad, India, designed the menu to offer the more complex Indian dishes from the Nawabi kitchens, which are popular in his home city.

For centuries, the dishes produced by the plentiful chefs in royal Nawabi kitchens were legend. With influences from the Islamic cultures of Persian and Turkish, this cuisine presents a luxurious style using expensive dairy products, oils, quality cuts of meat (often marinated) and innumerable spices. The restaurant is named for nine of these spices: asafetida, black mustard seed, chile pepper, cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek, garlic, ginger and turmeric. These spices star in many dishes at Spice 9.

Traditional Nawabi dishes are often layered with dozens of spices -- so many that being able to discern all of them in a single dish is lost to all but those with a highly skilled palate. While Spice 9 may not use dozens of spices in each dish, the dimension of layers is evident. But that's the tricky part in offering Indian food in the U.S. Spice is fundamental to all Indian dishes -- no matter which region. From the Punjab to the south, spices make the difference. Indian restaurants that offer dishes with a heat preference -- mild, medium or hot -- make sense from a financial standpoint, but not from a culinary one. In these customized dishes, spices are not cooked with the dish -- they're added at the end to flavor the sauce, but are not integral to the sauce.

In order to achieve desired flavor combinations, Indian chefs use different cooking techniques with spices and add them in a specific order to attain a desired profile. Some whole spices, like cumin seeds, are dry toasted until they pop, releasing the internal moisture which mellows and subtly changes the flavor profile. Other spices are combined and then sautéed together in oil, allowing those flavors to meld before adding them as a singular component to a sauce.

Gundala says his kitchen has a team of Indian chefs: one on the tandoor oven, another producing the dishes from the south, and one producing the Nawabi dishes. None attempt to dull the flavors. Attention to detail is also extended to plate presentation. Alongside the brace of familiar tandoor lamb chops, rendered exquisitely tender, is a trace of swirled mint chutney. The densely robust gravy that bathes chucks of goat (with bone) in the Nawabi marsala is nearly too indulgent.

However, dishes like mirchi (chile) ka salan (Hyderabad slang for sauce) are the strong suit at Spice 9. This spicy curry, meant to be added to a rice dish like biryani, has the consistency of pureed jalapeno chilies with a hint of coriander and cumin with a tamarind peanut base. I'm betting the pith had not been removed from the chilies since this dish packs major heat.

Surprisingly, bread is uneven. The best is the onion kulcha, while the roti lacks appeal. Desserts hold a few gems like the shower of apricot preserves on vanilla ice cream, dusted with pistachios and almonds.

Much care and copper transformed the interior. One wall offers abstract art while another has a waterfall and niches filled with religious iconography. The ubiquitous lunch buffet line is almost hidden from view and curtains cover the broad expanse of windows, protecting diners from headlights.

On the room-for-improvement side is service -- which is puzzling. A one-distributor wine list is offered, but wine service is not. After the initial pour, you are on your own. Tables are cleared by a bus boy carting a large bin, carelessly tossing glasses and plate and occasionally splashing food. With the price of the entrees and the attention to the interior, I would have expected plates to be removed individually at dinner. Bins of dirty dishes should be kept out of dining rooms.

The lunch buffet is $9.25 weekdays and $12.25 on weekends. Dinner entrées range from $9 for dosa to $19 for a whole fish cooked in the tandoor.

Spice 9 is a unique showcase of Hyderabad specialties. Sure, you can get other dishes, but would -- or should -- you want to?

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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