In trying to appeal to a wide audience, Ushna has left out the zing that makes Indian food great, says James Brennan Part of the immense appeal of Indian and subcontinental food lies in its vivid intensity. I recall my first experiences of curry as a child brought up on English Sunday roasts and boiled vegetables in the late 1970s. It was a jolt to the system, an awakening as shocking and awesome to my young sensibilities as prehistoric man's first encounters with fire.
I remember the takeaway cartons stained orange with turmeric and more oil than I'd seen since the Amoco Cadiz spillage. The sodden lids came off to heavy clouds of spice-saturated steam that might as well have been mustard gas. Beneath the oil slick, the curry was as damp and dark as an underwater cave, a feverish primordial swamp of unknown pleasures. There was lamb in there, but to my undeveloped palate it might have been braised stegosaurus rump, so alien was its flavour.
My first taste was a mere smidgen but it felt like a cargo plane laden with spices from the East had crashed into my face. What kept me coming back to Indian food after this baptism of fire was its ability to surprise and excite with vibrant spice blends - not necessarily fired with mounds of hot chilli, but enhanced, transformed and yanked into unexpected places with flavours like tamarind, kokum, amchoor and black salt.
My latest taste of Indian food came at Ushna, where I wanted to be surprised all over again. The plush contemporary decor at the recently opened Souk Qaryat al Beri restaurant was certainly a welcome revelation. It had the air of a sophisticated lounge about it, but lounging was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to wade, wallow and splash into some amazing dishes, so I started with that famous staple of north Indian street food, aloo channa chaat.
The colourful mix of chickpeas and diced potato was attractively served in a crispy papad cone, and topped with lush green coriander leaves. The mild cumin flavours of the delicately spiced potatoes were usurped by the sweetness of pomegranate and the tartness of lemon juice, but there was something missing. No spark. I hoped to find it in the resha galouti lamb patties, but despite the accompanying seasoned yoghurt, the meat was disappointingly dry, stringy and lacking in flavour.
There was further dryness to be endured with the tandoori jingha. The shrimps were large enough and bathed in a sufficient smear of pleasant yet slightly-too-anodyne spices, despite the presence of the usually pungent ajwain seeds. But the seafood was tragically overcooked, a little shrivelled and far too dry to enjoy. Fortunately, the murgh kurchan offered moist pieces of silky boneless chicken, which had been stir-fried with peppers and tomatoes, but this too was lacking something. No punch.
We turned to the dal makhani, which we expected to yield all the dank, smoky goodness of black lentils that had been slowly cooked overnight with simmering tomato purée, garlic and butter. The only surprise with the dal was that it wasn't as good as I'd expected it to be. It did, however, get spooned onto pillows of safad chawal, or plain basmati rice, and bundled into scoops of very agreeable garlic nan bread.
We'd added a bowl of cooling raita with slices of crunchy cucumber, just in case the spice level needed moderating. There was really no need for it, but the refreshing yoghurt did make a satisfying diversion with its naturally clean and wholesome flavour. By the time we were done with our savouries, there were still small mountains of food left upon the table - not because we were that full, but because our imaginations hadn't been fired sufficiently to provoke repeated helpings. No inspiration. And the less said about the ice-crystal shards in the malai pista kulfi with pistachios, saffron and falooda the better. I don't even want to think about whether it had melted and been refrozen.
The blurb at the top of Ushna's menu makes a play about its contemporary Indian cuisine. About how it has been influenced by European settlers and become more refined over the years by the sparing use of spices. Perhaps this is an attempt to appear cosmopolitan and sophisticated, but I suspect that Ushna merely has its eye on a wider audience. We're talking about those tender souls who baulk at the vivid intensity of traditional Indian food. The uninitiated hordes who were never hit by a spice-laden cargo plane when they were young. The ones for whom Indian food is nothing but a roaring chilli blaze, rather than a dancing fire of exotic flavours. Which might be why Ushna's catch-all approach lacks the elements of excitement and surprise that make good Indian food truly great.
Souk Qaryat al Beri, Abu Dhabi, 02 558 1769. Average price of a meal for two: Dh400-500.