On the Table

Kohinoor Indo-Pak Cuisine in Monroeville delivers authentically Indian and Pakistani dishes

A rare experience

Monroeville is the first community where Indians settled when they migrated to Pittsburgh in 1970s. It's home to the Hindu-Jain and Sri Shirdi Sai Baba temples and at least six Indian restaurants.

The newest one, Kohinoor Indo-Pak Cuisine, is a road-food find. Set in a motel dining room, the restaurant is co-owned by chef Tamil Selvan, a South Indian who has lived in the U.S. for eight years. His partners are Numan Bashir and his wife, Afshan, Pakistanis who have lived in the area since 1996. The couple also own One Stop Mini Mart in Oakland.

Kohinoor Indo-Pak Cuisine
4155 William Penn Highway
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  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays..
  • Basics: A quirky restaurant housed in the Sunrise Motel that offers some of the best Indian and Pakistani food in the area.
  • Dishes: Bhel poori, pani poori, naan, paratha, tandoori chicken, baingan bartha, aloo paneer makhani, chicken pepper fry, haleem, chapli lamb kebab, chef special biryani, achaar pickle, chutney.
  • Prices: Appetizers $4-$10; chat corner $6-$9; soup $4-$6; South Indian delicacies $3-$8; bread $2-$6; tandoori $10-$14; vegetarian entrees $9-$10; chicken entrees $10; Pakistan entrees $10; lamb or goat entrees $11; seafood entrees $12-$14; rice dishes $2-$10; thali $12-$13; condiments $2-$4; dessert $4-$5.
  • Summary: Parking lot, BYOB, credit cards, takeout.

If you hit up new Indian restaurants in Pittsburgh, you've likely tried Mr. Selvan's cooking. He was hired to open All India, Tamarind and Mint -- all in Oakland -- along with Coriander in Squirrel Hill. (I recognized Mr. Selvan from All India, which I loved when it first opened.) Once they had established a clientele, Mr. Selvan and the restaurant parted ways.

The Numans saw the pattern over the years and urged him to open his own place. A few months ago, they decided to partner up, giving Mr. Selvan full autonomy of the kitchen.

The results can be astonishing. If things stay as they do (or get better), eating here will be among the most memorable experiences you've had in Pittsburgh lately: not just in terms of ethnic dining, but dining, period.

I have eaten at very good Indian restaurants abroad and in the U.S., including Rasika, the Washington, D.C., restaurant from executive chef Vikram Sunderam, four-time James Beard nominee and this year's "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic."

Mr. Selvan, 33, has such potential. His cooking is sophisticated, dynamic and at times enthralling, despite the decor of the restaurant that is worlds away from the money behind an award-winning chef.

Run on a shoestring, Kohinoor is impossibly small, with a handful of tables downstairs and a balcony. A giant wood pillar dominates the center of a room brightened by skylights. On rust-colored walls hang garage-sale art: mirrored snowflake designs and murals of flowers, cheese, tomatoes and pasta. Customers sit at red and teal diner-style banquettes.

Yet the place is warm because it feels like an extension of a home. When I visited on a Sunday, eating lunch were the Numans' sons and daughter who just graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.  On another visit, a bartender who used to work at Coriander drove from town for Mr. Selvan's cooking, having recently learned he opened his own place. At a table during a visit, a man in a sweatshirt that read, "Organ Music Rocks!" finished a crossword puzzle while feasting.

Mr. Selvan plans to trim an insanely long menu of 128 food listings. In the meantime, he's polling customers about dishes and introducing them to unfamiliar entrees. His behavior is a departure from that of many chefs with more ego than skill.

"If customers are from South India, where I'm from, they usually want food from another region of the country rather than what they're making at home," he said. "Pakistanis usually don't go out to dinner for their food. They cook it best at home, so if they're here, I have to earn their trust."

He taught himself to cook Pakistani recipes from the Numans. When they approved them, the dishes made the menu. For non-Asian clientele, he has a conversation about the food rather than the spice-by-numbers drill followed in many Indian restaurants.

There are many roads to take with such a vast menu. But it's fun to start with snacks, such as the papadam with caraway, stacked like letters, served with raita and tamarind chutney.

The chaat corner lists pani poori, which arrive like a basket of eggs, each with a window for a dice of tomato, onion and chickpeas. Don't eat one without a spoonful of bright green cilantro water and a dollop of tamarind. Hot, tangy, salty and sweet, it's a lively bite, though I wish the pastry were just-fried.

Bhel poori is my ideal street food, a combination of textures with puffed rice, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and chutney. It's so addictive, I have to restrain myself from finishing a plate by myself.

When was the last time you were wowed by tandoori? I was mesmerized by chicken tandoori with layered flavors: garlic, saffron, coriander and cumin, turmeric and chili, ginger, yogurt and lime.

Served on a sizzling cast-iron plate, the chicken has char yet the rub is still wet, like a jerk sauce rather than bone-dry as tandoori can be. Beyond the sauce, the meat is juicy, delicious and very hot.

Each bite is a progression that starts at the tip of the tongue, kicks up the salivary glands and wafts through sinuses with a top-of-the-head finish.

As we waited for our next courses, we picked bones clean, and I fought my friend for the caramelized onions over peppers and carrots.

For the baingan bartha, what a difference it makes when eggplant is made to order. Spicy-hot with fresh garlic and ginger, cubes of eggplant are pliant, having given way to intense tandoori heat. They meld with tomatoes and onions rendered sweet. Mr. Selvan's garam masala, coriander and cumin round out the dish.

On one visit, he said he couldn't serve eggplant with the chicken, since they both require the tandoori. He hustled between courses, adding eggplant to the oven as we ate our first course. As it cooked, diners overheard the rapid thud of knives on a cutting board.

Under Pakistani entrees, haleem is a dish both foreign and familiar, like chicken soup, but thicker and maize-yellow, with more exotic seasoning. Slow-cooked chicken mingles with five kinds of lentils, rendered soft in chicken broth.

At the table, diners can add a wedge of lemon, sliced chilis and batons of ginger. Forgo the condiments you eat it with basmati rice.

"Have it with this," said Mr. Numan, as he served cans of Coke with straws. "It'll taste better." The sweetness paired surprisingly well. Though I don't love soda, I loved the gesture.

I could go on and on about pillowy naan, the delicious lamb chapli kebab, made with ground meat, spices and vegetables, or the best palak paneer I've had. But I have a word limit here and a few things to wrap up.

First: A note on this three-starred review. Warm hospitality and, more important, terrific food warrant the stars, despite the lean space amid big box stores and discount destinations..

Next: Mr. Selvan had spoken to me about "the luxury of a buffet," which isn't possible here, with so little storage and such a small kitchen. Although he and some diners may lament that it's missing, I don't mind. Such delicious, complex fare assembled a la minute is a rarity worth preserving.

Last: Whether it's for a table or an entree, expect to wait and go with an open mind. Kohinoor rewards patience with an authentic experience.

Correction (posted May 23): This review has been updated to state that the Numans’ daughter graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, not University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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