Stepping through the heavy wooden doors at Bengal Coast is like crossing a threshold into a carefully edited and recreated scene from a Bombay Trading Company catalogue.
The dÃ©cor calls to mind an Indonesian bungalow carefully edited and recreated. Mustardy walls, salmon curtains, pomegranate banquettes and sisal breathe warmth while subtly evoking the glamour of Far East cuisine. (The entrance contains spices pinched between panels of Lucite, for those who don’t take a hint easily.)
Bengal Coast, which opened in January in the Centrum building at Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs, is less a fusion of cuisines than an iteration of several kinds linked thematically. The owner, Mark Brezinski, developed the Pei Wei concept for PF Chang’s, itself a "greatest hits" portmanteau of Asian cuisines: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese. Here, Brezinski has ventured deeper down the spice road (he personally shot many of the photographs of foreign open-air markets and greengroceries that dot the walls) but has kept the extremes in check.
The tailored tastes could be mistaken for blandness if compared to authentic native dishes. But Bengal Coast’s canny achievement is adherence to the spirit of its inspirations with modifications that soften flavors for American palates. Traditional Indian, Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian tastes make appearances but without the searing heat often associated with South Asian cooking.
The chicken tikka, for instance — a staple of Indian and Pakistani cuisine, available here as appetizers or full-sized kebabs — is marked with a "spicy" symbol on the menu, but is mild by Punjabi standards.
Which is not to say the dish suffers one iota. In fact the appetizer "small sticks" tikka we tried ($5.50) featured what were surely the tenderest, moistest pieces of thigh meat we’ve ever encountered on skewers — not a trace of fat, gristle or tendon on the lot, and each cooked within a second of perfect doneness. (A slight charring on some pieces added not only color but smokiness.) The red barbecue sauce clings to the bits even when dipped in the green chutney, a minty Asian-style chimichurri.
Brezinski has also imported one of the stars of Pei Wei’s menu: the lettuce wraps (here called "boats"). Bengal Coast takes a more upscale approach, though, employing the unusual "little gem" lettuce instead of more conventional iceberg.
These are triumphs of concept and execution. Crispy Thai pork ($6.75), minced to the consistency of a fine ground beef, gets a simple preparation: scallions, garlic, a few more light spices. It’s served hot and then wrapped in cool, fresh lettuce leaves. The greens are spectacularly fresh, the pork tasty and filling. The only downside: There’s enough meat to fill twice as many boats, so we were left wolfing down spoonfuls of it. (On a separate visit, the tartare tuna was also good, but we preferred the cool-warm dichotomy.)
The meat on the tamarind pork kebabs ($16) was cut into such large cubes, we worried that the cooking would be unwieldy, possibly overdone. The first piece we tried was a bit dry, but only the first — every other bite of tenderloin was spot on, coated in a tamarind sauce that trapped moisture in. The pineapple in the basmati rice added more sweetness that acid, though the stir-fried vegetables added little to the dish.
The Malay beef ($16), while not especially crispy notwithstanding the menu’s description, was well-cooked and loaded with vegetables.
The kitchen offers four samosas (basically Asian-tinged empanadas) which on the outside look the same but inside couldn’t be more different. The Thai lobster ($8.50) was the table favorite, but the chicken, pork and vegetarian (with Indian paneer cheese, a real treat) were all tasty. Order a combination plate until you pick a favorite.
The samosas, as well as other dishes, are accompanied by several house sauces which, despite fresh ingredients (which we found among all the food on each visit), lacked some personality. The tomato-based panch poran, despite the inclusion of five spices, didn’t wow us, while the ranch-style mayo has a bit of kick from the citrus. If you ask for a more authentic (though mild) yogurt sauce, it’s cheerfully fetched — and there are more than 20 others to try, all made in-house.
Service has never exceeded expectations, but has not disappointed either. When a server was unsure of ingredients, he quickly returned with a recitation, and our glasses never were empty — in fact, our waiter on one visit deposited a full carafe of cocoanut-tinged iced tea on the table which added a Polynesian flourish to every bite ( the mai tai, however, was ho-hum).
Another hint of the Pei Wei influence is the blending of a fast-casual dining component with the more formal seated restaurant. Enter from one set of doors, and you’re greeted by a roomy bar and a view of the atrium dining room; enter through another, and you’re confronted by a back-lit menu board for to-go orders. But is this a sign of convenience or indecisiveness? And does it matter?
Ultimately, the appeal of Bengal Coast is its food. My dining companion on one visit, not generally a fan of the foods of the subcontinent, was miffed when one dish appeared to contain curry, which he generally doesn’t like. But even he begrudgingly admitted the flavors came together nicely — a concession that speaks volumes about how approachable and well-prepared the food is here.
If you need proof that Cedar Springs is still a destination point, at least for foodies, look no further than here.
| Bengal Coast
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 11, 2008.