Restaurant review: Haveli Bistro

G.A. Benton

Though currently chugging along pretty smoothly, Haveli Bistro, like many new restaurants, bumped into a few potholes in its first months. Yet even when its service was wobbly and the eatery wasn't running like a top, some things held true during several spread-out visits: The majority of the food I tried was resoundingly spicy and good, and Haveli Bistro has claimed the mantle of most eye-catching Indian restaurant in town.

That last observation might be a case of trying to live up to its name. “Haveli” is Hindi for an elegant, large house — often one with historical significance. Accordingly, Haveli Bistro inhabits the handsome two-story Downtown building formerly occupied by the once-happening Barrio Tapas Lounge and then Madrid Restaurant. Its modern and stylish present interior offers padded white leather chairs, black granite tables, crisp white walls, a sleek bar, a gold-chain curtain, beaded metallic lighting fixtures beaming a warm glow and a mural sketch evocative of the Taj Mahal. Not-too-loud electronic music often plays.

Countless menu items likewise communicate this isn't a by-the-numbers operation. House cocktails include the properly potent Haveli Old Fashioned ($14), which arrives under a glass dome filling with smoke from drink-surrounding bits of charred wood. The sweet, strong and creamy Last Lassi ($10) is a vodka-and-liqueurs-fueled libation served in a short glass with a licorice-candy-covered rim.

I'd like more mango flavor in that pseudo-lassi, but it's a soothing match for Haveli's incendiary fare, such as Drums of Heaven ($12) — a “house special” Indochinese-style appetizer enhanced by cashews and fajita-like vegetables. Thickly battered and frenched chicken legs are marinated and coated in a complex and addictive ginger-and-cinnamon-hinting paste containing fiery chilies likely grown in a place far away from heaven. Plump nuggets of OK seafood receive a similar culinary treatment — plus Sichuan peppercorns — in the sweeter, not-as-spicy, but nearly as good Chili Fish ($13).

Vegetarians can enjoy a delicious facial singeing — and those fajita-style sidekicks, too — by ordering the Hara Bara Kebab appetizer ($12). “Kebab” might be misleading here, because these are golden-brown veggie fritters made with mashed potatoes speckled with greens, chilies and house-made paneer.

You'll find more farmer cheese stuffed inside the excellent Paneer Dosa ($10). The paneer is diced and seasoned with chilies, plus ground spice seeds, and the oversize paper-thin crepe is delightfully crinkly and bears a pleasant tang testifying to a recent fermentation.

When ordering, take into account that the aforementioned appetizers are relatively large, whereas Haveli's pricier curry entrees tend to be small and come with bland basmati rice. But it'd be a shame to miss out on this place's thick and rich (but usually not heavily creamed), fragrant, nuanced and generally terrific curries.

The Chicken Maharani curry ($16) is identified as another house special with good reason. Its pulpy, tomato-based gravy, which counters intense subcontinent spicing with a long-cooked vegetal sweetness, could make shoestrings taste good; instead it flavors tender boneless breast meat. The same kind of meat is swamped in a cinnamon-forward gravy redolent of what tastes like a house-ground masala in the Chicken Chettinad ($15).

Perhaps my favorite Haveli curry, though, is the uncommon Gongura Goat ($17). It's not for everyone. Although I'm a fan, gongura imparts a vibrant sour tang, and the delicious meat in this rich dish is fraught with sharp bones and fat. Another caveat: Ordered at a medium heat level, this is nonetheless among the most tongue-searing things I've eaten all year.

Fortunately, cool relief arrived via dessert — and the best version of Rasmalai ($6) I've tried in Columbus. Simultaneously conjuring ice cream made from cheese and the Indian answer to tres leches cake, its milky tang is a great way to extinguish the flames of Haveli's spicy, mostly impressive dinner dishes.

Haveli Bistro

185 N. High St., Downtown