Years of prayer and whining in print on my part have finally borne fruit—we have an Indian restaurant in the area. Holi Indian Cuisine opened mid-June in FoWal, and by all reports has been doing brisk business since. My family and I ate there on a recent weeknight.
The restaurant sits on a busy stretch of Eglin Parkway. There’s a large banner, but you need to look sharp to turn into the parking lot. It was all but full. Inside, there was a brief wait. They don’t take reservations, but an efficient hostess takes names and keeps things moving. The staff of servers is agile and watchful, clearing tables, keeping drinks filled and answering diners’ questions.
It’s a small dining area—reminiscent of restaurants in large cities—but they make good use of the space, with booths and four-top tables. The decor is bright, clean, and cheerful. A sign explains the name “Holi,” an Indian spring festival filled with music, dancing, singing and plenty of color. The ceiling is festooned with open umbrellas in assorted patterns, adding to the party atmosphere.
I am no expert on the cuisine of India, but I do know that spices rule—all kinds, sweet, savory, mild, and hot. On each glass-topped dining table are information sheets with photos and descriptions of various spices and herbs used in Indian cooking—black pepper, asafoetida, mace, fennel, carom, star anise, mustard, caraway, nigella, cardamom, chili, saffron, nutmeg, clove, fenugreek, bay, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and others. Indian food can be extremely hot—but not always—and diners can specify which level of heat they want to risk. The server will ask.
On offer are appetizers, Indo-Chinese dishes, tandoori (clay oven cooked) items, wraps, egg dishes, standards like tikka masala, vindaloo, saag, jaiferzi, kadal, curry, vegetarian dishes, house specials, biryani (slow-cooked rice with meat and vegetables), assorted breads, sides and relishes, and desserts.
I did not see any alcoholic beverages, but there are traditional Indian drinks like buttermilk and lassi (dairy is an effective coolant for hot spice), coconut water, and Indian sodas. Meat-eaters can choose from chicken, lamb, goat, fish or shrimp. The kitchen can also accommodate halal, gluten free, vegan and jain diets.
Our server (Dustin) brought us menus, our drinks and a basket of crunchy little multicolored cracker snacks, with tamarind and mint chutneys for dipping. Before you decide anything, you should sit back and take a deep sniff—the aromas from the kitchen are worth bottling – and put yourself in the right frame of mind.
We started off with an appetizer called bahjia, fritters of shredded onions, potatoes, sweet peppers and vegetables, battered and fried with a dusting of carom seeds. They were smoking hot and crisp, without a trace of oiliness.
Other starters are vegetable, chickpea or lamb samosas (turnovers), potato dumplings, puri (deep fried unleavened bread), rice battered chicken or fried okra.
My wife decided on shrimp biryani and requested mild spicing. Our daughter Grace (now eight years old) made a meal of cheese naan (flatbread), and I ordered lamb vindaloo, with medium spice. I wanted some heat, but in my experience there is nothing hotter than hot Indian food, so I decided to play safe. Dustin reminded me that vindaloo is a chili-based dish, so there’s always a certain level of heat. I heard similar consultations at nearby tables, so be assured the servers are looking out for you, but if you want it hot, you can get it. We also ordered plain naan and tandoori roti (tandoori cooked bread).
The biryani was mild in heat, but rich in spice, with large shrimp and beautifully cooked rice. Grace had a basket of hot, cheese-laced naan. My vindaloo was bright chili red, tangy, slightly sweet, with chunks of tender lamb and potatoes, and rice on the side. The medium heat-level still made my nose run. Grace tried a little vindaloo on her bread: “It makes my mouth cry.”
Our meal also came with a side of raita, a yogurt and vegetable sauce dip that cools the scorched tongue.
Other dishes of note include eight vegetarian specialties, kebabs, noodles, cheese-based entrees, lamb shanks or chops, and a secret recipe special called Matka Chicken, cooked whole in a pot.
We passed on dessert, but the menu lists ice cream, rice pudding, rasmali (a kind of cheesecake), gulab jamun (a dairy-based fritter), and paan shots—after-dinner shooters said to be a mouth freshener and digestive.