Everybody should have a favorite spice route through India. If your tastes ran to the North, they'd be in chicken tikka masala territory. Were you to head south into Madras and Bangalore, dosas (Indian crepes) or vegetables in curry or tamarind mustard sauce would be part of the journey. Five of us sat down at Rani Indian Bistro in Brookline in the lull between Christmas and the New Year, and our meal led in many directions, including a place none of us had heard of: Hyderabad, a city in southern India.
The menu has a lot to say about Hyderabadi cuisine -- its regal, 400-year history; its methods of slow cooking; and its contrasts of sweet and sour, pungent and aromatic, spicy and salty. Hyderabad once had a flourishing pearl trade and is known for its hospitality.
Owner Samir Majmudar is from Bombay, but he fell in love with the influences of both North and South in Hyderabadi cooking on his many visits, and he's ready to spread the word.
Rani Indian Bistro replaces Bombay Bistro, which churned out tandoori shrimp and chicken vindaloo from a primitive kitchen with an eight-burner stove and one tandoor oven for 12 years. Majmudar thought the place needed "a little punch" (something certain restaurateurs in sleepy old Coolidge Corner should consider; you know who you are). So he changed the name, revamped the dining room, added a bar, and rewrote the menu, but he started by ripping out the kitchen.
When you step inside this streamlined set of rooms lit up in warm oranges and pinks, the first stop is a sparse bar. If there's a wait, you can perch on a comfy couch looking out on Beacon Street.
We were seated right away, and almost immediately the aromas from the kitchen put us into a Pavlovian state. Accordingly, we barked in orders for kairi murg, a dish of chicken cooked with raw green mango (one of several Hyderabadi specialties), and biryani, a dish of saffron rice, chunks of carrots, peas, and Arabian spices.
The biryani was rich but not spicy enough. But the kairi murg was a complete seduction, with its delicate balance of the tart and the savory. Using raw mango to flavor chicken is something you just don't see often in Boston. ("It's like using curry leaves a few years back. People scratched their heads: What is it?" Majmudar says.)
Rogan josh, a lamb curry from Kashmir, had a heavy, unexpected clove taste but held the sweet-savory line nicely, and the meat was so tender. Bombay curry soup, with pureed lentils and a solid curry kick, is thick and substantial and enough to cure various holiday-induced ills, practically standing as a meal unto itself.
Next time, Majmudar says, we should try murg musalam, a roasted half chicken smothered in a strongly fragrant sauce. "It's very Hyderabadi," he says. His personal favorite is chutney gosht: roasted lamb tossed in Hyderabadi spices.
The bill for five came to $100. At that price, you can afford to try everything on the 70-plus-item menu.
As we were leaving, Majmudar was consulting with one of his hosts over the arrangement of tables and chairs in the dining room, which has space for 87 seats. Later, Majmudar tells us he's still waiting for one more nod from the Brookline selectmen before he makes room for all the seating. Maybe the selectmen should try the kairi murg and then decide.
Rani Indian Bistro 1353 Beacon St., Brookline. 617-734-0400.