"On a scale from one to six," the server asks, "how spicy would you like the daal?" Inevitably, this feels like a trick question. In an Indian-British pub—in downtown Durham—do the numbers align with Indian, British, or American standards? And when the server says she's a six, do you really want to admit that you're a three? Your companion suggests one or two. "One or two?" you gasp. So you say, "Five!" You meet in the middle at four.
But, you're a three.
The achari palak daal arrives in a handled, hammered metal dish that half-shimmers in the room's low light. The lentils are mustard-hued and very hot, in both senses of words. Temperature and capsaicin exasperate each other like little siblings—"No, you stop!" "No, you!"—so as one becomes loud, the other becomes louder.
Luckily, there is plenty of yogurt around—the Barbie-pink beet lassi, for example, and the tart, cucumber-threaded raita. A couple of sips here, a few plops there, and, just like that, the flavors stop screaming. They start to sing.
In many ways, it seems, Viceroy is constantly trying to harmonize.
The restaurant opened in November. Its concept merges two cuisines that were, historically, forcibly married and have long since divorced. While other British-Indian restaurants have received criticism for recycling a violent history into a restaurant venture—Saffron Colonial in Oregon changed its name to British Overseas Restaurant Corporation a month after it opened—Viceroy's self-awareness seems one step ahead of such critique.
The word translates as "a ruler exercising authority in a colony on behalf of a sovereign." And while the interior, with dark wooden booths and gold-framed portraits of colonizers, evokes a posh British pub, the menu itself challenges: Who, really, is the ruler here?
Some dishes are British classics, like sausage rolls with Colman's mustard; others are a playful British-Indian fusion, like the curried shepherd's pie with ground lamb and mashed potatoes, and the Queen's Fries, with slabs of English sausage and thick, spicy curry gravy, which is like a poutine that flew across the pond and got tipsy on the plane. Cadbury kheer, a chocolate rice pudding, sounded like it couldn't go wrong, but did.
More than anything else, though, the food is Indian.
And that makes sense, considering that Viceroy was born from an Indian food truck, Tan-Durm. Owner BJ Patel described its fusion concept to The News & Observer in 2016, when the truck was a year and a half old: "We don't do traditional Indian cuisine," he said. "We mix cultures." The chicken naán´me, for instance, is a mash-up between Indian chicken tikka and a Vietnamese banh mi.
The truck's regular parking spot, beside Bull McCabe's Irish Pub, foreshadowed what would eventually become its brick-and-mortar sequel. Bull McCabe's owners Malachy Noone and Rhys Botica partnered with Patel to open Viceroy.
The gastropub's cocktails creatively hold their own. A London iced tea takes a typical Pimm's formula and adds a curry leaf. The Mumbai Rum Punch straddles sweet and savory with pineapple juice and fresh cilantro. A dozen beers are on draft, plus bottles and cans, and a modest selection of moderately priced wines. (And that beet lassi, which I ordered twice.)
- photo by alex boerner
- Bar manager Willie Ennis writes the night's specials on the big chalkboard at Viceroy.
But I have a feeling that if you go in for a drink, you'll come back for the food. The menu is divided into smalls, mains, and tandoor. The last is a style of oven, traditionally clay and cylindrical. Viceroy's is imported from London.
The maharaja—or Indian prince—kebabs include chicken tikka, chicken tangri, lamb seekh, and tandoori shrimp. These are good individually but collectively confused, like a surf-and-turf carried away by the sea.
Stick, instead, to one protein: maybe the murg mykanwala, with tender chicken buoys bobbing around in a creamy tomato curry, which you'll pour on your rice and sop up with blistered, garlicky naan. If you prefer lamb, the kashmiri rogan josh is also a tomato curry, but it's tangier and more piquant with chilies and yogurt.
I say forgo the meat altogether. As Meera Sodha, a British cookbook author, writes in Made in India, "Vegetarian dishes are the star of the show for the majority of Indians in India." And they are certainly the star at Viceroy.
The usual pigeonhole for paneer (a pressed, fresh cheese) in American-Indian restaurants is saag (greens), typically spinach, hopelessly overdosed on cream. Viceroy's simla mirch lets the paneer speak for itself: spice-crusted blocks, with crispy edges and milky centers, nestled amid peppers and onions, awoken by a squeeze of lime. The dish calls out to that part of all of us that just wants to eat cheese, just cheese, for dinner, and says, "Yes. Yes!" Trust yourself. Follow your damn dreams.
The bhaji—crunchy, craggy spinach-onion fritters—provide similar excitement. Order them with chaat, a chickpea masala wearing a big, frilly fascinator of yogurt and tomato and onion and cilantro and fried noodle fragments.
The service is OK, if you have a server. Wander in on a busy night—most are—without a reservation and you'll have a long wait, or a seat either at the bar, the "social bar" (essentially, community high-tops), or an open table designated for walk-ins. The only catch with the last three is that you have to order at the bar.
But this is a small cost, considering the return.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Empire State of Mind."