Back in September of 2020, Fletcher Place icon Rook closed its doors for good, becoming one of the first restaurant casualties of the pandemic. For members of Indy’s fine-dining ecosystem, seeing that showpiece property sit vacant, a glass shell along the Cultural Trail, was a constant reminder of gloomy times. But Vinita Singh, owner of the northside Smee’s Place Bar & Grill, had never eaten at Rook. She didn’t know about its trailblazing Filipino chef, Carlos Salazar, or the restaurant’s epicurean following. She’s a working mom. She lives in Zionsville. When her broker called to tell her about this great property available on Virginia Avenue, she had no interest in the place. It was too far from home. He told her to go look at it anyway, and so she did. “The next morning,” Singh says, “I told him to get the paperwork going.”
Singh, who has a master’s degree in hospitality management from Michigan State and spent the early years of her career working with two of the restaurant industry’s most prolific chain empires, Brinker International and Darden Restaurants, didn’t so much as move furniture before reopening the airy, 3,600-square-foot location as Aroma Indian Cuisine and Bar in late March. “It’s such a beautiful property,” she says, her eyes sweeping the high, open ceilings and walls of glass that give the place an art gallery vibe. “I feel like this is a masterpiece. If I made any changes, I would just destroy it.”
Beneath those same oversized red pendant lampshades that branded Rook’s spare aesthetic, diners can now spoon luscious saag paneer onto their plates and dunk fat, flaky samosas into tamarind chutney. The pastry pyramids are plumped with potatoes and peas cooked tender with cashews, and they release a delightful puff of steam when you break off a buttery corner. Aroma serves a popular Indian dish called malai kofta that arranges little fried dumplings of potatoes and paneer (a mild, ricotta-like cheese) atop velvety, gently spiced tomato sauce. It plays crunchy against creamy, starchy against tangy—dramatic textures and flavors that translate as comfort food.
Singh insisted on having malai kofta on her menu, describing it as a beloved Indian food that most restaurants get wrong, even the ones in India. I’ll take her word for it. Because everything I know about traditional food from the subcontinent you could fit into one of those tiny white ramekins stacked at the end of an Indian lunch buffet. I only learned about tandoori chicken, aloo gobi, et al., by circling those fragrant steam tables, cluelessly loading my $10 plate with all-I-could-eat gingery lentils and tikka masala, filling up on sheets of warm naan that I slathered in creamy raita, and always going back for more red-tinged chicken. I have a thing for Indian food—its rich and complex flavors, subtle tease of heat, and sexy cumin perfume. When I taste butter chicken, I hear Celine Dion.
Aroma functions on a higher level, though, delivering elaborate dishes like lamb shanks swimming in decadent brown sauce, tandoori fish cooked in an Indian clay oven, and light but flavorful minced chicken seekh kebabs. A starter of kurkuri bhindi—shatteringly crisp ribbons of fried okra—has a stealthy, tingly heat that’s hard to quit. And the chicken malai kebab, marinated in cream and yogurt before hitting the flame, stays miraculously juicy, redolent with ginger and garlic.
Pepper chicken cooks in a heady combination of mustard seeds and curry leaves, and makes for a lovely peppercorn-forward stew. Eat it with spoonfuls of nutty basmati rice. The bhuna ghee goat features meltingly tender bits of slow-cooked meat lilting into a sticky onion gravy made even more decadent with Indian clarified butter. (Heed my advice and press the bone nubs free with the back of your spoon before shoveling in a mouthful of this savory, highly concentrated roast.)
To cut the richness, servers bring out cool, sweet lassis—fruity blended yogurt drinks topped with diced candied fruit called tutti frutti. And desserts include a knockout rice pudding presented inside a hollowed-out orange, fried dumplings in rose-flavored syrup, and homemade pistachio or mango ice cream.
When customers who have firsthand experience with authentic Indian cuisine come in to eat, they thank Singh for opening such a restaurant that honors the food and serves hard-to-find regional favorites that haven’t been Westernized to death. That means a lot, but she also hopes diners less familiar with legitimate Indian cuisine will come to expect this caliber of preparation and presentation from other local curry houses. Executive chef Kamal Papanai, who came to Indianapolis from Chicago and worked in five-star hotels in India and the U.S. before that, crafted a menu of luscious curries, aromatic masalas, rich but tender goat-based dishes, and an entire section of vegetarian entrees.
A new craft cocktail program will likely roll out later this month and will include flights of Aroma’s hard-to-find bourbons and scotches. In the meantime, you can hardly go wrong with a chilled bottle of Flying Horse Royal Lager, crisp, subtly malty, and the perfect gentle foil for these intense flavors. Singh has other ideas in mind. She might eventually hang some art on the walls and do something exciting on the restaurant’s patio—like add a small stage to feature live entertainment. For someone who didn’t want to venture this far from her north-suburban stomping grounds a year ago, she’s starting to catch on.
It’s a shame that almost all of the traffic through Aroma’s door during my first visit (as I sat in a near-empty dining room, stuffing myself with buttered naan and tandoori chicken flavored to the bone with paprika and turmeric) consisted of harried couriers hustling in to grab their DoorDash and Uber Eats deliveries.
I guess this is one legacy of the pandemic that might linger for a while. Aroma’s soft opening happened around the same time that people were just beginning to go back out into the world, albeit with healthy fear of shared public spaces. I just feel bad for someone who has to eat their goat cheese–studded butter chicken out of a to-go container. Hopefully, as things slowly return to normal (or at least a new normal), we will be able to get out of our Styrofoam clamshells and enjoy a place as gorgeous and inviting as this worthy addition to Virginia Avenue’s gourmet row. 501 Virginia Ave., 317-602-7117, aromaindy.com
Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat.–Sun. 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
Carefully crafted pan-Indian dishes, ranging from streetfood favorites to lavish traditional entrees.
Start with a plate of housemade samosas and tandoori chicken that will make you doubt every tandoori chicken that came before it. Get an order of founder Vinita Singh’s favorite bhuna ghee goat, and a mango lassi topped with mango mousse.