"American cuisine" used to be regarded as something of a misnomer. Immigrants to America adapted the culinary traditions of their home countries, improvising with what they could find in our markets. Some of the dishes that evolved, like the round, 8-cut pizzeria pizza and General Tso's chicken, have been so widely adopted that they now seem more American than foreign. The uniquely American foods that emerged from this experimentation, like the famous hamburger, seem to symbolize our culture's stereotypically simple, casual approach to food.
But American cooking has matured, adopting and freely combining flavors, ingredients and techniques from around the globe even as authentic regional cuisines from everywhere become more readily available. All this cross-pollination is sowing a fertile field of recipes whose most American characteristic is their creativity. For example, at Biryani, an Indian restaurant in Monroeville, the most exciting section of the menu is the one labeled "Indo-American."
Biryani is the second restaurant to be opened by chef Amarjit "Billu" Singh and his American wife, Amy. The first, Billu's Indian Grill, demonstrated a deft hand with the tandoor and a fluency in dishes from his native Punjab. Recently, the Singhs decided to upgrade to a larger space in Jonnet Plaza, which they painted in rich colors and decorated with artwork of temples and peacocks. The dining room, and Mrs. Singh's attentive service, were warm and welcoming.
On the menu, a short greatest-hits list of traditional Indian dishes (such as chicken tikka masala, palak paneer) takes a backseat to chef Billu's original Indo-American specialties. There are several lunchtime variations on wraps — "naanwiches" and kathi rolls — that package Indian foods in the American hand-held tradition. But the Indo-American menu also consists of a half-dozen dishes that range from near-universal foods, like fried chicken and catfish, to true fusion items. These include lamb burger and tamarind shrimp skewer, the latter with a fennel salad in sweet onion vinaigrette. In between are several typical American entrees with Indian inflections — or, if you prefer, vice versa — such as tandoor lamb chop with cheddar mashed potatoes.
In these items, real thought has gone into translating Indian flavors and preparations into forms and combinations that are worth eating even if you love Indian cuisine at its most authentic. The best example was the lamb burger, which placed a simple lamb patty on a semi-soft semolina roll with mint-garlic yogurt sauce and "Asian" cabbage slaw. The tender, lightly spiced lamb on a bed of crisp, tangy vegetables, rounded out with the creamy, herbal sauce, tasted as inevitably delicious as the classic combination of lettuce-tomato-pickle. The side of pretty good fries, dusted with subcontinental spices (seemingly a chili-heavy masala) were tasty on their own, and addictive dipped in the garlic aioli that we borrowed from our kids' fried chicken.
— Which was very good, if not quite as life-changing as the lamb burger. The meat, butchered into smaller chunks than is typical in the States, was moist and flavorful within, suggesting perhaps a tandoor-style yogurt marinade, and coated with a thin, crisp crust. It was even better in wing format (available as an appetizer), where the crust seemed a touch thicker and a dusting of spices added some zing.
We recalled the fried catfish fondly from chef Billu's previous menu; here we had it as part of an appetizer sampler. It featured terrifically tender, flaky, juicy fish within an almost magically light and crispy batter coating. The only hitch was too much salt dominating the seasonings in that batter.
Another welcome holdover was spicy ground lamb (seekh) kebabs. Unlike many chefs, Billu doesn't overdo these in the tandoor, instead allowing just a hint of char while ensuring that the meat remains juicy and tasting of itself, not just its spicing.
Of traditional Indian dishes, we tried chana masala and, of course, biryani. The former eschewed tomatoes to let the chick peas take center stage, while the latter — we ordered goat — was wonderfully savory and subtly spicy, without raisins, nuts or other distractions from the elemental flavors of meat cooked with onions and basmati rice. Like all our dishes at Biryani, these were plentifully seasoned, but not spicy.
If the hamburger symbolizes an America that cannot spare the time — or the table manners — to sit down to dine with a knife and fork, let Biryani's lamb burger symbolize something else: the open-minded culture and creative fusion that come from the merging of global tastes and traditions.