Snow was falling, sleigh bells jingled and carols filled the air as I slalomed through a festive sidewalk throng toward Moksha, the new Indian restaurant that replaced Luciano in Bellevue Square. When I made a seven o’clock dinner reservation earlier this month, I forgot that, at precisely that hour every night from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, downtown Bellevue erupts in an outdoor holiday extravaganza called “Snowflake Lane.”
Like a modern-day White Rabbit, I rushed through this winter wonderland, cellphone in hand to let the restaurant know I was running seriously late. Once there, I admired the equanimity of three receptionists who managed the gracious triage of parties large and small, many seeking last-minute seats in the rapidly filling dining room. Their aplomb is matched by a nimble (though not always knowledgeable) wait staff that keeps food and drinks flowing.
Moksha, a Sanskrit word, refers to the eternal bliss the soul achieves when the cycle of reincarnation ends. To fit the concept, Seattle-based design firm Mesher Shing McNutt created a stunning interior that evokes a Bollywood-meets-Taj-Mahal idea of paradise. Georgetown artist Yuri Kinoshita’s woven light installation hovers over a glass-topped bar that is also lit from below. Tasseled ivory columns illuminate the dining room, where elephants stenciled in gold march along white walls above dark wood paneling. Seating is curvy, cushy and plush, upholstered in metallics and jewel tones that pop against an ebony wood floor.
Moksha is a second venture for Lakshmi Thanu, born in Tamil Nadu state on the southern tip of the subcontinent. His six-year-old restaurant, Spice Route, has always been a reliable destination for Indian food in Bellevue’s Crossroads neighborhood.
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Moksha aims at a more upscale, downtown clientele. The menu offers tandoori specialties — chicken, prawns, lamb and paneer (the Indian cheese) — marinated in yogurt, chilies and spices, and cooked in the high heat of the clay oven. Chicken, lamb and seafood also figure in an array of curries, stews, stir fries and rice dishes. There are several vegetarian options as well.
The tandoor items I sampled — chicken cooked on the bone, minced lamb dotted with mustard seed, and ruddy bricks of paneer — were moist, tender and deeply imbued with flavor. A lemon wedge and slivered raw bell pepper and onion garnished each plate.
With those you’ll want an order of naan or whole wheat roti: soft, puffy flatbreads also cooked in the tandoor. Or try the onion kulcha, flatbread with a savory onion filling.
Bread, or a side of steamed basmati rice, is essential for capturing vibrant sauces, like the coconut-peanut concoction sizzling with chile pods, ginger, coriander and star anise that smothered small, round Indian eggplants.
Lamb Karaikudi, one of the best dishes on the menu, packed plenty of chile heat too, along with tomato, garlic, fennel and curry leaf in a thick sauce binding fork-tender meat.
The butter chicken’s luxurious cashew-thickened tomato sauce reminded me of an exotic Romesco; it assuaged the somewhat dry texture of the chicken breast. “Fisherman’s Salmon” tasted more like farmed salmon, but the dish is memorable for its marvelously complex tomato sauce pungent with whole curry leaves, black mustard seed and cumin. Similarly, a sweet tomato sauce warmed with ginger, nutmeg and fenugreek transformed rather bland malai paneer koftas, cheese dumplings wrapped in chopped spinach, into something delicious.
Saag paneer, cubed cheese in a creamy spinach sauce, was the highlight of a lunchtime thali tray that included dal (yellow lentils), raita (tart yogurt with cucumber), a tomato salad, rice and naan. Creamy Mulligatawny soup, thick with diced apple and celery, was far too tame.
Not so tame: Shrimp 65, devilishly spicy grilled tiger prawns; also the bracing trio of chutneys that accompany starters like lamb keema, zesty minced meat tucked into crisp pastry pockets.
Both of those appetizers are also on the happy-hour menu. Moksha’s sexy bar and lounge is bound to attract the cocktail contingent. Whether you seek your bliss in a cilantro margarita, a Manhattan made with cherry-infused rye, or (for the designated driver) a sea-salt and fresh lime soda, a stack of papadum, lentil wafers flecked with cumin, will speed you on the path to highest happiness.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.