For Indian food fans, Urban Tandoor set a high standard when it opened in mid-2019. If something feels familiar about Pakwan Indian Restaurant & Bar, it might just be the same signage and logo font. But get to eating, and you’ll find a similar quality in the roundly excellent flavors at the new spot (a former Smashburger).
Why? Because Pakwan co-owner and chef Bobby Singh was a partner and chef at Urban Tandoor. Here, he’s split away with business partner Vipan Kumar (who manages the bar side) to create something of their own. Singh tells me he’s been cooking for just over a decade, cutting his teeth at a cousin’s place in Ohio named New Krishna. His recipes here are similar, he says, noting their Punjabi (northern Indian) style.
Pakwan’s decor and ambiance strike a nice balance between fine dining (a wall of wine bottles in the entryway/bar and a moody gray color tone throughout) and casual eating (at vinyl booths where you’ll feel comfy underdressing as Smallorado Springsters love to do). There’s cloth napkins and an offer of finer water options at seating; an easy two-page menu; and a convenient/expeditious online ordering system at their website (which we use for our second visit). At our in-house meal, we begin with a nice samosa chaat app, a couple of crunchy-shelled pastries filled with the three P’s: potatoes, peas, paneer. The starchy treats swim in a muddy garbanzo curry with poppin’ swirls of mint and tamarind chutney, plus yogurt that cools the mild spicing, which includes coarse coriander seed bits, notably.
We order house cocktails with Indian-ingredient twists. A mango lassi up in a martini glass, spiked with spiced rum, rates as our favorite: floral, thinner textured than the heavier yogurt drink, and fruit-bright. A double filtering to remove ice chips would near-perfect it, along with a sub to a real maraschino cherry instead of the bright red abomination. The Pink Tiger presents a beautiful balance in proportion between ginger beer, grapefruit juice, tequila and stylizing rose syrup. It’s not too sour, biting, sharp or sweet, just a harmonious blend that’s my first dance with rose and tequila, a pretty pairing I’d happily revisit. Lastly, a tamarind margarita lacks discernible tamarind essence, tasting more of lime juice sourness and Triple Sec sweetness, with up-front tequila punch and a disruptively potent, fine-grit table-salt rim instead of a proper coarse salt.
Come entrées, vegetarians take note of Pakwan’s strong cheese game. We’re over the moon with an order of Malai Paneer Tikka, a shish kabob-like skewer of grill-charred, house-made cottage cheese rectangles — flavored by fenugreek and black cardamom — separated by bell peppers, with grilled red onion and chutney garnishes, plus a side of herby tomato gravy for dipping. The menu says the cheeses melt in your mouth; that’s true. There’s such a rich cream cheese feel to them, that with the red onion, we crave a bagel to stuff it into. (Some cultural food associations are strong.) Malai Kofta, by contrast, takes grated paneer and potato and packs it into a ball with a cashew-raisin center. It offers a soft, starchy bite with light sweetness cut by a vividly spiced onion-tomato gravy.
From there it’s all turf but for our single surf dish, a superlative shrimp Malabari coconut curry, ordered spicy. Singh tells me fresh curry leaves are key, and we relish in both the nutty-sweet flavor and a toasted edge that evokes fresh bread crust somehow, though the prawns themselves are perfectly undercooked to a gooey texture (rather than the rubbery-hard over-sear of stir-fries everywhere). Spicy here means spicy, so we smolder happily and let rice and pieces of naan soak up all the fire sauce. On that note, skip the familiar naans for unique Bullet Naan, made with serrano peppers, and cremini mushroom and truffle naan, which lands as lavish and lovely as we hoped. Epic.
Another worthy, spicy option: goat curry (watch the bones!) in a dark ginger-garlic tomato-onion sauce — yum. Or go medium or “medium-plus” with Pakwan’s Special: tender lamb and chicken tikka with peas in brown gravy with fresh tomatoes and cream — no frozen or canned items, insists Singh. Chicken options abound, but we wisely select the Chicken Methi, made with fenugreek leaves in masala sauce; there’s an outwardly zesty, vegetal, herbaceous taste to it, really dynamic and homey, with a provincial comfort food feel to it that makes us think of Thanksgiving stuffing. With it, order the chickpea-flour Missi Roti flatbread, flecked with complementary dry spices and herbs.
From a half-dozen desserts, we go with recommended kheer rice pudding, huge with green cardamom flavor (we fish some pod segments out), creamy and not too sweet; again, nicely balanced. That’s the word that resonates and lingers with me to sum up Pakwan. So many great flavor flourishes, bound together elegantly. Simply delightful.