Twice this year Labrena Shamsi responded to crisis calls about her restaurant, Desi Wok Modern Indian Cuisine. The first was devastating. The second turned out to be only a close call.
It was Feb. 19 when a fire started above the kitchen ceiling. Shamsi, who wasn’t at the restaurant at the time, said the staff didn’t notice it until a customer told them the roof was on fire.
“The staff evacuated the building, then they called me,” said Shamsi, who has operated Desi Wok for 11 of its 12 years. “They said the restaurant was on fire and fire trucks were on their way.
“Insurance companies negotiated two months before we could even start a renovation. The damage was extensive, especially the smoke damage. We even had to replace the duct work to get the smell out.”
The close call came during the August tornado that destroyed businesses within yards of Desi Wok in Highland Park Plaza.
“I slept right through the tornado,” Shamsi said. “Then my phone started going off with people asking me if Desi Wok was OK. We had a little bit of damage to an exterior sign, but that was all.”
Shamsi said she can’t imagine how she would have responded if the restaurant had been destroyed twice in one year. As it was, she was able to reopen the restaurant Nov. 29, welcoming a long line of loyal fans.
“People brought flowers and told us how happy they were that we were back in business,” she said.
She wasn’t kidding. On two recent trips I made there — once with friends for dinner and once during the lunch hour for photos and an interview — the dining room was nearly full, and there was a constant line at the order counter.
Desi Wok offers several styles of cuisine, including East Indian, Asian, Indo Chinese and fusions of all three. All dishes can be ordered mild, medium or hot, and the menu marks a number of dishes that can be prepared vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free.
Our group ordered seekh kebab korma, pina colada masala, a tandoor plate and chicken shamz ($9.95 each). We also had an order of samosas (four for $6.95) and a cup of sweet corn soup ($3.95).
In the seekh kebab korma, balls of marinated lamb were cooked on skewers in a tandoor oven then put in a bowl of korma sauce of crushed cashew, onion and tomato. The person who ordered it asked for medium-hot and said he probably would go hot the next time. Medium was warm enough for me.
The coconut flavor hit the palate right up front then mellowed off in the pina colada masala. The sauce included Desi Wok’s signature tikka masala blended with coconut milk and pineapple.
The tikka masala, a creamy tomato-based sauce with Indian spices, drives the flavor of the restaurant’s best-selling chicken tikka masala.
The tandoor plate included tender chicken quarters that had been marinated overnight in Indian spices and cooked in a tandoor oven. The chicken was flavorful and showed the tell-tale reddish color of tandoor chicken.
Chicken shamz was described as a fusion dish featuring long slices of white chicken served over a bed of rice and topped with tomatoes, onions, potatoes and green beans with a side of a smooth garlic masala sauce that was light on the garlic.
All of the dishes came with big pieces of naan. The charred flatbread was tasty but could have arrived a little warmer.
Samosas are an appetizer of triangle-shaped pastry filled with mushed peas and potato. The dipping sauces — a mint and a sweet tamarind — were excellent.
Shamsi told us samosas are made fresh daily and it takes three to four hours to make 200. “They usually go fast,” she said.
Shamsi said she has tweaked the menu, dropping some dishes and adding some new items.
“Some people still ask for some of the dishes we dropped, and I’ll probably start offering them as daily specials in January,” she said.
Beverage choices include sodas from a Stubborn Soda fountain featuring all-natural ingredients. I had a root beer that was terrific.
“It has been a long time getting to this point,” Shamsi said. “It has just been exciting to get open again.”