He never meant to open an Indian restaurant. And certainly not two in the same year.
It all started with those dinner parties at the Homestead property Niven Patel bought in 2013 while still working as chef de cuisine for Michael Schwartz in the Design District. Patel was obsessed with the tropical fruits and vegetables he started growing on the two-acre plot he dubbed Rancho Patel. Now those farm-fresh ingredients are the heart of his new Ghee Indian Kitchen restaurants.
A dearth of Indian dining in Miami has led to serious demand. So, now on any night at Ghee Dadeland — and its more recent fraternal twin in the Design District — you will find lines of bearded hipsters next to PTA moms, first dates and rosé-swilling girls-night-outs.
“I am pleasantly surprised,” Patel, who turned 34 in August, said in a follow-up interview. “Sure we get some of the ‘I expect this on the menu and it is not on the menu’ kind of thing, but we are opening their eyes to a different style.”
Thankfully, devoted staffers are steeped in a unique style that melds modern small plate sharing, tropical ingredients and traditional Indian spices and techniques. The whole family teams up to run the restaurants. His mother-in-law, Indira, develops and tests many of the recipes. (Patel calls her “a beast in the kitchen.”) His father-in-law, Santosh Patel, is equally handy on the farm with power tools. And his wife, Shivani, runs the front of the house.
One of Ghee’s most welcome offerings is the amazing array of Indian snacks you rarely find in restaurants around here. They are reason enough to make a pilgrimage to either location. It is worth noting that both of Ghees’ menus, printed daily, are nearly identical. Longtime friend and colleague Pushkar Marathe handles the Design District kitchen, where I also had an exquisite meal last week.
Favorites so far include the bhel topped with fresh, raw, marinated fish. Bhel is a common Mumbai street snack made of puffed rice sticks mixed with chopped onion, tomato, chutneys and tamarind to form an addictively sweet, salty, spicy mix that goes so well with the daily catch and buttery avocado.
Coconut petis are another lovely deep-fried treat stuffed with potato, sweet-sour tamarind and peanuts. Perfectly simple idli are made of rice flour with shaved coconut and lentils. Pani puri are also delightful. Crisp, little hollow puffs of semolina are filled with chopped beets, potato, sprouted moong bean daal tossed with sweet chutney, kale, spinach, apples, chilis, mint, and cilantro with a piquant green juice chaser.
With a kitchen run mostly by lifelong vegetarians you can expect a rainbow of delicious meat-free options.
Standouts include deeply charred green okra with black mustard seeds and a rich curry-leaf-studded yogurt sauce. Backyard pakora are already a signature here: Rancho Patel’s taro leaves, diced calabaza and sweet onion are deep fried into little bronze fritters. Also look for anything with local spinach, buttery avocado and exquisite purple baby eggplants.
So much fresh seafood makes it hard to choose. We loved it all. A whole snapper is fried golden and served with a slaw of tangy mango and papaya with loads of coconut and chilis. Pert, red shrimp from Key West bathe in a corn relish with sweet coconut over basmati grits made from broken bits of rice. It’s so creamy you would think it was risotto.
Another runaway success is the smoked lamb neck, a tender and gorgeously marbled hunk of meat that is rich like a long-braised osso buco but with an added smokiness offset by lots of fresh herbs. The chicken tikka masala is made of fall-off-the-bone thigh meat in a piquant tomato sauce and gets its deep smokiness from roasted local peppers.
A quirky drinks menu includes a simple grapefruity Indian Chenin Blanc from the Maharashtra region, refreshing sake cocktails as well as Taj Mahal lager and local brews. Fresh-made sodas, juices and lassis are also great with the exuberantly seasoned but never-scorching heat of Patel’s cooking.
Desserts by pastry chef Alexandra Sarria are a step above than the usual gooey, syrupy classics. We adored the black, warm, sticky toffee date cake, a version of the traditional British “pudding,” with a sharp and sweet ginger ice cream that makes it sing. Batons of black cardamom kulfi are another unexpected treat.
The flavors may seem a bit grown up for families with young kids. And it’s still as loud as a Gujarati bus station thanks to the high, concrete ceilings, stiff-back mango wood chairs and hard surfaces throughout. Despite the too-bright lights and din, Ghee is charming in an Etsy-kind-of-way. Five-gallon glass jars line the walls holding a kaleidoscope of spices while hand-painted murals of flowers lend a bright, urban edginess.
A taste of mukhwas — the colorful fennel seed mixture is a sweet spicy digestive aid — spooned into your palm on the way out, is just another reminder of how the Patels are serving up the best Indian tradition to this evolving, modern city.
Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Instagram and Twitter @VictoriaPesceE
Critics dine unannounced at Miami Herald expense. For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com.
If you go
Place: Ghee Indian Kitchen
Rating:☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Excellent)
Address: 8965 SW 72nd Place, Dadeland; 305-968-1850. 3620 NE 2nd Ave, Miami; 786-636-6122.
Prices: snacks $7-$13; curries $14-$18; meat and fish $14-$36; vegetables $6-$16; dessert $8-$10. Three-course, family-style tasting menu $55 per person. Wine pairing is an additional $30.
Hours: 5 -10 p.m. Monday-Saturday (until 11 p.m. weekends)
FYI: Valet parking, garage and metered street parking; wine and beer only; $25 corkage fee per bottle (limit three per table); Reservations strongly suggested; AE, DC, MC, VS.
What the Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)