There is no one Indian cuisine, of course. Bengalis eat completely differently from their compatriots in Kerala, Kashmir or Gujarat. The vast majority of Hindus consider themselves vegetarians; but it's the meat-heavy menus of the mainly Muslim Punjabis that are widely considered the apex of Indian cookery. Thus, most Indian restaurants offer tandoori chicken, lamb tikka and butter chicken—a popular curry—along with nan, lentil dishes and cottage cheese preparations for vegetarians. It's not a sophisticated menu, but it's tasty and satisfying—and that's the template the new breed of restaurateurs is trying to break. Here is a roundup of our favorites.
Bringing Indian cuisine into the rarefied realm of tall food is the ambition of Hong Kong's newest subcontinental outlet, Veda. It specializes in delicious designer presentations reminiscent of early-'90s nouvelle cuisine. The tandoori paneer tikka, for example, is fresh cottage cheese glazed with a mustard greens pesto, festooned with slivered yellow peppers and trailing carrot curls. Veda takes Indian dishes in a never-before-seen direction, namely single-serving portions. Instead of sharing, you get your own roast breast of duck crusted with curry leaf, peppercorn and coconut, an ultra-fashionable Indian option ideal for business dinners. Just make sure it's a client worth impressing—a meal for two with wine costs close to $200. For reservations, call (852) 2868 5885.
There's nothing new about Bukhara, the award-winning restaurant in New Delhi's Maurya Sheraton Hotel, which has been operating for decades. But Bukhara was the first restaurant to take an Indian specialty item—foods cooked in a tandoor oven—and transform it into gourmet cuisine. The restaurant's look is pure Flintstones: walls of boulders, solid-wood tables and menus printed on laminated sections of tree. There's no cutlery either: you rip at great hunks of meat and swab it up with nan the size of a trash can lid. But don't let this modish coarseness fool you: there's nothing back-to-basics about the cooking. The tandoori jhinga—four colossal marinated prawns flavored with yogurt, red chilies, turmeric and garam masala—is sensational. And the sikandari raan, a whole leg of spring lamb soaked in vinegar, cinnamon and cumin and cooked in the tandoor, is irresistibly succulent. Prices are steep for India: a meal for two will cost at least $80. But in a land of conformity, there's little to beat Bukhara's oasis of the extraordinary. Call (91-11) 2611 2233 for reservations.