Golden Spoons Review: Pani Indian Kitchen

| 17/08/2017

CNS Local Life(CNS Foodie): East Indian cuisine has been something of a hidden gem here in Cayman. For the last few years, options have been limited to the one establishment on West Bay Road (see Golden Spoons review of Southern Spice) or the offerings from one of the many restaurants across the island taking advantage of Indian (many from Goa) kitchen staff. But finally someone has rolled the dice on a new, dedicated East Indian menu and the result is a dynamic blend of classic preparations and Indian street food.

Pani means “water” in Hindi, and nestled in the Crescent at Camana Bay, facing the tranquil North Sound, is Pani Indian Kitchen. Being of East Indian descent, I naturally couldn’t wait to check it out. Though I haven’t been to India myself yet, I grew up eating Indian food prepared by my mother, aunts and a cousin who is now a chef. I also should mention that with over 2,000 different ethnic groups in India the cuisine is extremely diverse, so while there are many standard recipes, the preparations will vary from region to region, making Indian food a unique experience from chef to chef.

The restaurant immediately beckons with its small patio covered by large, comfy couches with brightly coloured cushions and some cheery adornments. Upon entering, the host greets you from behind a small wooden street stand in front of a beautiful, bold wall of 3D moulding. Our server arrived moments after we were seated to deliver menus and take our water and drinks order.

As we perused the menu, I couldn’t help but want to order everything I’ve had before to compare to my mother’s, so I decided to get an onion bhaji, which are deep-fried onion fritters ($7), and vegetable samosas ($7) to start. My companion ordered the only Indian beer on the menu, Kingfisher, but unfortunately they were out so he ordered an Elephant lager ($5.50) while I tried the New Zealand Sauvignon offering, Bark Hedge ($12).

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Onion bhaji

While we waited for our appetizers, we took in the eclectic décor, including large canvas prints of a sheep, cow and chicken with the Indian third eye markings; a large, wooden high table for casual group seating; and what appeared to be a hand-painted mandala design in the middle of the floor. There were also noticeable copper details everywhere, from the tandoori ovens to the authentic “thali” serving dishes. Of course, there was an Indian god or two as well as strings of lightbulbs, giving the whole room a fun “market chic” feel. Another clever addition: the door to the restrooms is hidden in the 3D wall at the entrance, making it a fun, secret entrance when you open it.

The menu offers a wide range of meat, seafood and veggie options and so it took a while to decide what to order. Our drinks and complimentary poppadum arrived, one plain and one black pepper, which are cooked in the tandoori oven, along with a mango chutney and hot sour pickle for dipping. Though crispy and fun to eat, a word of caution: the black pepper is really spicy.

When our appetizers arrived, I was a little surprised at the preparation of the onion bhaji because I’m accustomed to there being more batter. However, it was crispy and tasty with curry, caraway, cardamom and a little heat. The samosa was good but the crust seemed more like an eggroll wrapper than created from handmade dough. I prefer my samosa crispy but still soft, and I found the wrapper too tough for the soft potato filling, which had a great blend of spices and heat but needed a bit more salt to bring the flavours together. Both my wine, which was crisp and medium bodied, and the beer, a full-bodied lager, nicely accompanied the mix of bold flavours gracing our palates.

Our mains arrived shortly after we’d finished our appetizers – Malabar curry snapper ($19) and chicken tikka masala ($17), with a regular roti ($4) and lassoni (garlic) naan ($4.50). The roti and naan, which are almost the same except the roti is made with wheat flour, were baked to a soft crispness in the tandoor. Both curries were delectable. The Malabar, a local coconut curry paired with the tender snapper, was heavenly. The sauce was rich and bursting with flavour; it was clear the spices were given time to blend together. The depth of flavour also came through with the tikka masala, a creamy tomato curry.

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Malabar curry snapper

I imagine the cooks start these dishes early to give them a good couple of hours to simmer to let the liquid soften the spices and then evaporate, leaving the gorgeous remains. We dipped both the roti and naan into the gravy and then wrapped those around the fish and chicken in the traditional way of eating by hand. Though the gravy was the star of the Malabar curry, with its almost $20 price tag, I expected a bit more protein than what was served. At the very least, a few more pieces of fish would have brought the sauce-to-protein ratio more in line with half and half than two-thirds to one-third, which just didn’t seem right.

We also both found that the mild version we hoped to share with our 2-year-old (who does enjoy a good amount of spice) was just too spicy for him. I enjoy a decent spice threshold myself but found the “mild” version definitely more in the “medium” spectrum. So if your palate requires a true “mild” be sure to request it specifically. There is also a children’s menu available with several standard options including mac and cheese, fish and chips and chicken tenders. Our kid was happy dipping naan in the delicious and cool yogurt raita that came with the bhaji, and our server cheerfully brought more when we asked.

We finished our meal with a traditional Indian dessert, gulab jamun ($7), two cardamom-infused cake balls served swimming in a bowl of syrup, that was a lovely ending to a delicious meal. I will be coming back soon to try other dishes such as the tandoori kebabs, the puri chaat Indian street food (patties stuffed with variations on spiced potato, chick pea and onion) and aloo gobi (spiced potato and cauliflower). The incredibly diverse menu, which will also suit both vegetarians and vegans, offers a variety of flavour and portion options for either a meal or snack and, of course, the relaxing setting of Camana Bay can’t be beat.

Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Pani. The service was excellent and despite the unexpected heat level, the preparations met my highest standards for flavour and texture. With more than half of the 30 patrons on the night also appearing to share Indian origins, it seems word is already spreading about this new and delicious taste of India right here in Cayman.

Gratuity: 15% added to the bill

Pani Indian Kitchen website 

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Category: Dinner, Golden Spoons Review

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