We try to shop local whenever we can, but sometimes a need arises that can only be served in the vast commercial mosaic of big-box retail that is Monroeville.
Though the fact is often overlooked, the great thing is that Monroeville has local businesses, too. They cluster hopefully around the bland focus-grouped offerings of the national chains, hoping for some coattail action, or perhaps even to peel off a shopper — or diner — hungering for something a little different.
A little different, indeed, is Kohinoor, the second Pakistani restaurant in succession to occupy one of the funkiest dining spaces in Monroeville — if not the region. Formerly part of the Sunrise Motel, it's a soaring space seemingly built around a two-story umbrella that's been blown inside-out. The best tables are in the loft that's up in the umbrella's spokes, but you can admire the vaulted wooden ceiling, circular stone buffet and incongruous photo-canvases of Italian breads and cheeses from any seat in the house.
Actually, Kohinoor bills itself as "Indo-Pak," with a specialty in halal meals. Like many an Indian menu, this one is formidably lengthy: no fewer than six folds of an 11-inch-high brochure, printed small. We started in the "Chat Corner" and branched out from there.
Chat, for the uninitiated, is sort of like Indian nachos: a kind of snack that generally consists of a bed of something bite-size and crispy, topped with some combination of yogurt and/or chutney, legumes and/or vegetables, and herbs and/or spices. The combinations are endless.
We cannot get enough chat, and Kohinoor's samosa chat gave us another version to love. A savory whole samosa, still crisp at the edges, was smashed and crumbled, then topped with saucy chickpeas and garnishes of sweet-tart tamarind chutney, tangy house-made yogurt and zesty mint.
Another of our favorite Indian snacks, the enigmatically named "chicken 65," looked right: craggy and reddened, promising moist flesh within the crust of the lumpy little chicken fritters. But that crust was disappointingly bland, more like regular fried chicken than the addictive, salty-spicy blend that makes satisfyingly good chicken 65 (which in our book can be even better than Buffalo chicken).
Chicken came in two other preparations as part of a mixed-grill platter from the tandoor. A drumstick had the traditional vermilion coloring and yogurt-marinated flavor of tandoori chicken, while a boneless thigh, simply seasoned, was cut into juicy chunks. Like most tandoors, Kohinoor's is just too hot to produce succulent shrimp, but the flavor was still nicely spicy and briny despite the chewy texture.
On the other hand, salmon subjected to the same heat was amazingly tender and moist without a strong fishy flavor, and beautifully rosy-red outside. These platters usually include lamb kofte, a dark, skinless sausage, but here the lamb was in tender shreds that barely held together once slipped off the skewer.
Bhuna is a curry preparation in which the sauce is reduced until it is highly concentrated and just clinging to the meat. Kohinoor's lamb bhuna featured small cubes of tender lamb in a thick, rich gravy, complexly flavored with tomatoes, onions and plenty of warm roasted spices. Sarso da saag, mustard leaves cooked Punjabi-style, distinguished itself with plentiful bits of zingy minced ginger in the thick, green sauce.
Haleem, a subcontinental variation on the popular Arabic dish harissa, was a marvelous stew consisting of a sort of pureed lentil dal — a combination of three varieties, according to the menu — plumped up with finely shredded chicken and lamb. The texture was almost silken, the flavor deeply seasoned and savory without being spicy.
We'd wanted to order a dosa (similar to a rice-flour crepe) from the South Indian specialties section of the menu, but that wasn't available the night we were there. For side breads, we satisfied ourselves with thick, fluffy naan and aloo paratha, tender and almost dumpling-like from the seasoned potatoes within.
Though the restaurant was never full, a steady stream of customers certainly kept the staff running the night we were there. If Kohinoor can draw more customers, perhaps it will become possible for the establishment to bring on additional help. It sure tastes good to support local business.