If it hadn’t been for a quintessentially American dining tradition, Junaid Ahmed might never have gotten in the restaurant business. Fifteen years ago, Ahmed and his wife, both natives of India, were just settling into the Vanderbilt community. It wasn’t long before they were invited to a potluck supper.
As their contribution, the Ahmeds brought along a bowl of aromatic basmati rice and a couple of other Indian dishes. “As soon as we walked in the room with our food, everyone came over to see what we were carrying that smelled so good,” he remembers. “It was gone in no time. There was no Indian food in Nashville then, and people were very excited about these new dishes.”
So excited, in fact, that the Ahmeds started receiving potluck invitations nearly every weekend. “We had never heard of potluck suppers before. In India, if you invite someone to your home to eat, you cook all the food yourself. We started to have dinners at our house and invited different groups of people to experience Indian food.”
The lucky guests suggested that Ahmed try his hand at the restaurant business. With that bug in his ear, Ahmed kept his eyes open for a location and, in 1990, opened a restaurant in the heart of Green Hills; the first Shalimar, on Hillsboro Drive, was scarcely bigger than a private dining room. The place seated just 16, but it was immediately successful. The clientele included many of the Ahmeds’ friends and colleagues, possibly repaying the favor of years of free meals, but it also included Nashville’s growing number of curry, tandoori, and chutney fans.
The tiny kitchen at the first location was hardly big enough to service even such a small room, and parking in the Green Hills Grille/Boston Market strip was increasingly problematic. So when a new space became available on Hillsboro Road, Ahmed snatched it. The new Shalimar opened a month or so ago directly across from Pier 1 Imports and Kinko’s.
Fans of the original Shalimar will be reassured to know that Ahmed’s move hasn’t compromised the restaurant’s much-touted intimacythere are still just nine tables, three in the front room and six in the cozier back room, but he has doubled his seating capacity.
Once you close the door on bustling Hillsboro Road, and if you request a table in the back room, a visit to Shalimar can amount to sensory overload. Ahmed has transformed what was formerly a bottled-water store into an exotic little jewel box with walls painted to resemble century-old stone; dim lighting and sitar music add to the ambiance. A regal waitress arrives at your table, traditional silk garb fluttering and bracelets tinkling. In heavily accented English, she inquires as to your fancy. The heady aroma of spices doesn’t merely waft from the kitchenit soaks into your pores; even outside of the restaurant, it manages to overpower the smell of Krystal burgers cooking next door. (That’s good news for the approaching warm weather months, when Ahmed will open his walled courtyard out back.)
Unlike other Indian restaurants in town, Shalimar doesn’t bombard the anxious culinary novice or the jaded gourmand with a barrage of choices. Instead of 10 appetizers, there are just twothe traditional opener, samosa, and a lentil vegetarian soup. Instead of two or three dozen entrées, there are just 12, with seven vegetarian side dishes from which to make a meal, if that’s your leaning.
You might want to start with an Indian drinkmango lassi, yogurt lassi, or mango or guava juice. We gals opted for beer and wine, which we brought along in a cooler. Shalimar does not serve alcoholic beverages.
We wanted to sample some breads, and our server suggested the appropriate predinner choices. She advised us to save the puri (deep-fried, puffed bread that resembles an inflated balloon) to accompany our meal.
Shalimar’s samosaa circle of pastry filled with spiced potatoes and peas, twisted shut, then friedis generous of size and refreshingly ungreasy. Our samosas came with an exquisite yogurt dressing, slightly sweet but with a spicy bite.
We also tried the garlic masala nan and onion masala nanhalf-inch-thick rounds of bread topped with chopped onion or garlic. Baking in the tandoor oven makes for a crisp exterior, while the interior stays soft and chewy.
With the bread, our server brought the heavenly condimentsplum and green chutneys and cucumber raita. Newcomers to Indian cuisine are always a little intimidated by the condimentshow, when, and with what to eat them? My advice? However, whenever, and whatever.
We put spoonfuls of the green chutney (pulverized green chiles, coriander, and lime) on our plates and scooped it up with our bread. We dropped some plum chutney on top of the lamb and alongside the basmati rice. We used the soothing raita to cool off the heat-packing tandoori chicken. (We ordered it hot, and it was delivered that way.) We were ready to fork over good money in exchange for a gallon or two of Shalimar’s chutneys, just so we could take them home and eat them straight from the jar. As Mary observed, they would make cardboard taste good.
If there are just two of you dining at Shalimarand I highly recommend it for a romantic rendezvousyou might risk your first argument over who gets the lamb saag. (“Saag” indicates that a dish includes spinach.) The meat was of melt-away tenderness, the spinach was cooked down to a sauce-like consistency, and the seasoning was so subtle that no single spice could be identified.
I encourage group dining at Shalimar so that you can pass and sample the chicken curry (chunks of breast meat in a tomato-based curry), the fish masala (a thick salmon filet on this particular evening, served in a savory tomato-yogurt sauce), or the tender and moist tandoori chicken, a dish that is not always so successfully executed elsewhere.
When we attempted to order six side vegetables, we were firmly reprimanded by our server, who refused to allow such overindulgence. She advised three, saying more would only imply gluttony and would inhibit our enjoyment of the individual dishes. She was right; we satisfied our cravings with the saag paneer (homemade soft cheese and spinach), aloo gobi (a fabulous comfort dish of cauliflower and potato), and curried eggplant. We’ll save the vindaloo (hot potato curry) and curried lentils for next time.
The notorious aromatic basmati ricethe dish that started it allaccompanies each entrée. It’s readily apparent why Ahmed was such a hit at those Vanderbilt potluck dinners 15 years ago. His basmati beats macaroni and cheese any day.
I confess, with no small amount of embarrassment, that I never went to the original Shalimar. No particular reason, just laziness probably. I had always heard that the food was good but that the portions were stingy. Unless the serving size has increased along with the restaurant’s square footage, my experience debunks that notion. The portions were exactly the right size, satisfying the appetite without overloading the stomach. Dinner for fivewe could have easily fed sixwas $121.37.
When we left Shalimar, several hours after we arrived, we weren’t bemoaning our bulging tummies; instead, we were savoring the marvelous tastes that lingered on the tongue. Ahmed’s food philosophy is to leave the customer wanting just a little bit more. I like that in a restaurant.
Shalimar is located at 4111 Hillsboro Rd. (269-8577). Open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; for dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards accepted.