Catch them if you can — the wonder boys of Key West’s ethnic education have brought the flavors of the world to our little corner of the globe again, this time with an entirely different theme but with a story that is just as much worth telling.
It’s been heard all over town for years. The lustful wishing and the constant wanting for the intoxicating flavor of faraway spice. Every now and then, some clued-in restaurant might post a special pseudo-reminiscent of the exotic cuisine of southern Asia, but it has been longer than most of us can remember since Key West has proudly boasted an actual bona fide Indian restaurant.
The secret to great Indian food is not just about putting a dish on a menu, but about creating an experience that celebrates the most important of the senses — the heady aroma, the intimate fragrance, the abundance of colorful scents that tickle your tastebuds.
“We came up with the idea for the Dahl House the same way we did with all of our projects” explains Dahl House and Kojin co-owner Andrew Berman. “Half of it was to find a need and then fill it and the other reason was because it’s what we want to eat. That’s pretty much how Kojin started.”
Up on the shelves of the otherwise modestly decorated space, massive containers of aromatic seasonings line the wall. They will later be used in one of the five main dishes, all of which are served with basmati rice, lentil or chickpea dahl, naan bread and mango chutney.
The choices range from the cinnamon- and nutmeg-driven lamb rogan josh to the creamy coconut milk, spinach and cheese saag paneer and the garlic- and ginger-forward chicken tikka masala. Each base stew is simmered for several hours until all the flavors have melted together to produce that deep, intense flavor that “stays with you” or, for those who need a more visual description, “until the chicken falls off the bone.”
“India was the birthplace of the slow cooking movement,” co-owner Keith St. Peter tells me, “so we tried to make it a pretty rounded Indian experience. We didn’t invent the recipes — they are all very traditional. And as with all of our projects, the menu will change slowly and organically.”
Business partners Berman and St. Peter are no strangers to satisfying exotic cravings, going all the way back to 2012 with their modern take on gourmet ramen at Kojin. The flagship immediately became an overnight sensation, and even to this day it can be difficult to snag one of the intimate bar seats during peak meal times.
Over the years Kojin was eventually joined by House of Wu and Southernmost Sandwich Company. Once a dumpling shop, House of Wu became a soup and salad joint, which later morphed to include the next door sandwich offerings all under one roof and thus make room for the Dahl House.
All this, in a strip mall facing the intersection of Duval Street and Truman Avenue that Berman and St. Peter have nicknamed “Lunchville.” Except this time, it is the filling of a need for that after-work escape away from the office or the kitchen and into the land of something foreign and delicious.
“We make Indian curries,” Berman says, “where ‘curry’ simply means a blend of spices.”
“Curry is non-specific; it’s a very general term,” St. Peter adds. “We’ve already converted a lot of people who say they don’t like curry. Just to put it in perspective, one could say that even a Mexican mole is a curry at heart.”
In an age where imposters like to take the easy shortcut, Berman and St. Peter are local role models in the fact that not only do they operate a scratch kitchen driven by their own well-curated culinary instincts, but by having two of their establishments side by side they are also able to reduce waste and operate in a more sustainable fashion.
Whether it be the name, which was nearly “the Naan Stop” instead of the settled-on Dahl House, to the rotating lassi (a refreshing beverage made with a homemade blend of yogurt, spices and fruit), everything that the pair does is done with purpose and thought. There might not be anything fancy about the café-style setting, the basic walk-up counter where you place your order or the few simple tables that make up the tiny dining room, but their culinary practices put them far ahead off their local industry peers in moving movements that are starting to take off in the more progressive parts of the country.
“We cross-utilize ingredients,” St. Peter happily shares. “For example, the lamb stock we make for the lamb rogan josh will at some point become the broth for a soup of the day at Southernmost Soups & Salads.” It’s a perfect example for the evolution of their story.
“NexNext time you interview
us, we might be serving Mediterranean!” St. Peter jokingly laughs, hinting to the previous articles I have written about their various culinary exploits.e
But something tells me this one might be here for a while.
“The response to the
food has been awesome,” Berman says. “It’s a great feeling.”
The Dahl House is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. for dine-in, take-out and delivery. They offer something for everyone across the dietary spectrum, from vegetarian to gluten-free, and although they are just in the beginning stages of their newest concept, the duo will be announcing more exciting dishes in the near future. Follow them on Facebook at Southernmost Soups & Salads to see what’s cooking, or just stop by to see — and smell — what all the recent fuss is about before they move on to their next craving. ¦