I desperately wanted to title this review “The Hundred-Foot Journey Down Market Street,” but my editors can only take so many puns. As I write this piece, I bear a gratified belly full of fried cheese, hoppy beer and garam masala. Not expecting that last one, huh? It’s the middle of the afternoon and I feel as though I could happily hibernate in an Indian food coma for several days. That is the epitome of a satisfying meal.
In my pre-dining investigation, I found many Yelpers noted Nawab Indian Cuisine’s occasionally bare dining room during lunchtime service. Seeing as this restaurant is still semi-new (and semi-obscure), I didn’t take this as a turnoff. As a matter of fact, a handful of those who stated the aforementioned fact also happened to share rave reviews about the food. I take the emptiness as a clear sign that Nawab hasn’t been properly introduced to Port City’s hungry patrons. Well, Wilmington, put on those game faces. Let’s get curry with the shot!
I stepped through Nawab’s curtain on a sunny Tuesday afternoon—a bit before closing time, to be exact—and found I had the space (and the owners) all to myself. Despite being able to close up at any o’clock they please, they greeted me and my appetite with welcoming faces. Not to mention, toward the end of my meal, I heard them take several to-go orders well past quitting time. Props for customer service!
For anyone unfamiliar with Indian fare, this cuisine is adored for its warm spice mixtures and hearty sauces that drape equally well over meat and veggies. It’s also celebrated for its preparation of ingredients in charcoal or wood-burning Tandoor (a cylindrical clay oven). This fixture in Indian cooking exposes the food to radiant, indirect heat that produces an unparalleled charred flavor.
After scanning the tempting list of appetizers, I landed on the Paneer 65. This South Indian-style snack consists of firm cottage cheese-like cubes marinated in a spicy paste, tossed in several kinds of flour, and then deep fried until golden brown. These addictive bites are then brought to the table swimming in a fiery red sauce, scented with chilies and coriander. Despite all of the other dishes coming, I polished off far more cheese cubes than I’m proud of.
To rinse down the spicy nuggets, I asked for a recommendation on an Indian beer. The owner suggested Kingfisher, and I watched the golden lager stream into the thin frozen pint glass. It’s crisp, clean refreshing flavor balanced out the gentle heat and richness of the Paneer. Don’t worry spice lovers—this (and most of Nawab’s dishes) can be ordered anywhere from “please, don’t hurt me” to “blow my socks off.” I’m accustomed to having chicken satay at Asian restaurants thinly sliced, skewered and covered in a peanut butter-heavy sauce. Nawab’s version featured thick chunks of charcoal-perfumed, Tandoor-cooked chicken with a thin, gingery peanut dipping sauce.
Tikka masala is to Indian fare what Pad Thai is to Thai food: the gateway dish. Ironically, there’s quite a debate about whether it actually originated in India or England. But I’m not here to give a history lesson; I’m here to say I’m still in a trance from Nawab’s lamb tikka masala. The essence of the traditional dish comes with strips of yogurt-marinated meat, grilled and then dunked in a bright tomatoe-y cream sauce, swirled with onions, peppers and plenty of fragrant garam masala (India’s signature blend of cardamom, coriander, cloves, peppercorns, etc.). Served alongside: a fluffy pile of long, slender basmati rice. Each comforting mouthful was like a hug from a giant stick of butter.
Once I scooped up every last decadent lamb morsel, I found myself with leftovers of the luscious sauce. Nawab’s garlic naan—sprinkled with herbs and spotted with sharp garlic—made a superb vehicle for additional sopping. (I recommend going for the gold with a bite of naan, lamb, cream sauce, and a dollop of mint chutney. You. Are. Welcome.)
One entrée down, I turned to the owner for more advice. I was craving something light (not an easy challenge when dealing with comfort food I want to lay down and take a nap in). He pointed out to the chicken jalfrezi—a traditional quick-cooking curry, packed with caramelized aromatics like ginger and garlic. The stew-like feast—although known for being speedy to prepare—was heaped with deep, complex flavors like star anise and tangy green chilies.
If unfamiliar with Indian fare, this family-run establishment is the ultimate atmosphere to electrify palates with exotic flavors. For a pocket-friendly lunchtime sampling of much of the menu, check out Nawab’s fully-loaded and fresh-as-can-be buffet. For a deliciously fun night out—the colorful décor, dark wood, and authentic Indian adornments will make for an evening to remember. Or not—depending on how many of those Indian beers are popped.