Four Spice Indian is the latest incarnation of the dining spot off Nicholasville Road and Rojay Drive that many refer to as "the restaurant near the car dealership" — but it deserves a lot more distinction than that.
Its new owners have transformed a jagged, jigsaw design that had possibly some of Lexington's worst restaurant feng shui and opened it into an airy space. Gone are stereotypical wall hangings found too often in Indian restaurants of ranis in saris, glittering elephants and reproduced velvet paintings of the Taj Mahal. Instead, the walls are tastefully and minimally staged with posters displaying herbs and spices — undoubtedly among the most beautiful ways to honor color.
And then there's the food.
Increasingly, local Indian restaurants are getting hip to the fact that Lexington diners want seductive spices and layered flavors emblematic of the Indian palate more than they want the borderline obnoxious overuse of ghee and cream. Four Spice is a great example of the former.
In addition to food from the Subcontinent, there are Parsi dishes, inspired by the brilliant cuisine of Persia. So you can try a unique and interesting fusion.
Eating in this fresh and pretty place is also relatively inexpensive: For less than $43, two can share an amuse bouche of pappadums that include our city's best mint-jalapeño purée with creamy consistency and ideal heat (along with a standard tomato-onion chutney and sweet tamarind sauce), a large appetizer, two breads, two entrees with rice, and a luscious mango lassi, India's famous shake that could serve as dessert. You'll still have lots to take home.
Sample the tandoori "combo platter" to begin. This stir-fry resembled fajitas with beautiful slices of orange peppers and onion but, rather than just one protein, it was loaded with pieces of ground lamb kebab, several shrimp and chunks of tandoori chicken breast. The light scattering of cilantro added brightness, and the seasoning was spicy but with a restrained touch.
For entrees, I tried two items that honored the blended traditions of Persia and India: vegetable patia and chicken dhansak.
The vegetable patia included a mix of cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, peppers and onions in a velvety tomato sauce with just the right amount of heat. (I ordered it mild.) But to call it a tomato sauce is an injustice because one bite showcased the sweetness of the tomatoes, another the warmth of ginger, another coriander, another cumin, another a bit of cayenne. In short, if flavors can be compared to a kaleidoscope, this is where that comparison is apt.
Chicken dhansak, chunks of tender breast meat, was also delicious, again with prevailing aromatics including garlic, mint and onions. The distinguishing feature of this dish, lentils, seemed, however, to be absent. Or perhaps they were finely puréed? In any case, I was counting on them for their plump, starchy texture to make things pop, but the sauce bore more of a resemblance to the patia than anything with legumes. That said, the patia was nevertheless as heady and delicious.
Both main dishes were served with perfectly cooked, lightly buttered basmati rice with just a sprinkling of chopped cilantro and a few sweet peas on top.
My only real disappointment was with the breads. Our paratha — delicious whole wheat flatbread — and the garlic naan both seemed undercooked and greasy. I am particular when it comes to Indian bread and want to see the toasty blisters that add fragrance and depth.
The Courtesy Acura auto dealership retains the larger footprint on this corridor off Nicholasville Road, but Four Spice has many miles more flavor. Most of us are seeking out a good meal far more often than the next vehicle, right?
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.