The lobby of the Bengal Coast welcomes guests to a fresh, new experience in Asian dining. Exotic spices are mounted in Plexiglas on the wall across from a self- contained bar area overlooking a formal dining room.
Photo Courtesy of Bengal Coast

Dallas' Bengal Coast: A treat for all the senses

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

May 13, 2008 - If you're looking for a fresh dining experience, free from the stale, one-dimensional cattle call of most chain restaurants, there's a wonderful new place in Dallas that will delight, educate and satisfy all your senses.

The vibrant dining room of Bengal Coast provides a lush dining environment for its patrons.

Bengal Coast: Spice Traders, located between Cedar Springs and Oaklawn, opened its doors in January and seems to have carved out a niche in the highly competitive world of speciality eateries. The restaurant focuses on cuisine from "the other Asia," meaning flavors from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Carol Allen and I stopped by last Friday for a light supper before heading downtown to the Meyerson to see jazz trumpeter Chris Botti perform with the Dallas Symphony.

Carol was more familiar than I with "other Asia" cuisine. As she drove us into the city, I read off dishes from the menu I had printed off of the restaurant's lovely website. Even though I completely mangled their pronunciations, Carol recognized most of the spices. Before Bengal Coast, my experience with Asian food was limited to bad curry from a lousy tandoori place and searingly hot shrimp from the Uncle Thai's restaurant that used to be in the Galleria.

How could I keep from looking like country-come-to-town when I couldn't pronounce anything except "Signature Currys" and "South Asian Stir Frys?" To tell the truth, I was a little intimidated by the sheer number of new flavors and exotic combinations of kaffir lime, galangal, fenugreek and lemon grass.

I needn't have worried. Bengal Coast's staff must deal with novices like me all the time. We found the manager, chef and servers patient, knowledgeable and able to answer every question with amazing ease. Even more impressive is their enthusiasm for the food and its flavors.

Manager Katherine Bower greeted us and stayed at the table to make recommendations on everything from cocktails to dessert. She then introduced us to Mari, our server, who took great care of us for the rest of the evening. She answered our many questions, made suggestions and seemed to really enjoy sharing her knowledge and love of the food. Chef Neville J. Panthaky brought our plates to the table and appeared genuinely delighted to see us. During the evening, I noticed him visiting with other tables, too. You don't get that kind of personal service at The Olive Garden or Red Lobster.

Bengal Coast owner Mark Brezinski's attention to detail is what put Bengal Coast on the map. The affable Brezinski, who is originally from New Jersey, came to Texas some 20 years ago to work in the restaurant business, learning his trade with Brinker International, Tin Star Restaurants and finally at P.F. Chang's. At P.F. Chang's he co-founded Pei Wei Asian Diner, a faster, less expensive version of the popular Chinese food chain. He also has ties to Hopkins County. He is the son-in-law of News-Telegram's Advertising Manager Johnie Hardgrave.

"I'm an entrepreneur," Brezinski said when asked why he branched out on his own. "I take chances. It's what I do."

He might take chances, but that doesn't mean he shoots from the hip. From the front door to the intimate dining areas, Brezinski's done his homework to make sure his guests enjoy a complete dining experience. The moment you walk through the doors at Bengal Coast, you are keenly aware you have crossed the threshold into another world. Exotic spices are encased in Plexiglas frames and mounted on the wall of the foyer. There is a freestanding Zen-like bar, complete with its own food menu on your left and behind it a lovely formal dining room. An open kitchen gives you a glimpse of what goes on in a busy, professional kitchen. A less formal dining area to the left of the kitchen is where we were seated. Booths along the walls and tables in the open give the space a neighborhood-friendly feel.

We began with appetizers called Samosas ($6). They're little stuffed pastry pockets with accompanying chutneys. We got an assortment of vegetable, chicken, pork and lobster. The spices were delicate and perfectly matched to each stuffing. We had two chutneys - one was ketchup-like, but with a little kick and the other was an "Indian Ranch" dipping sauce, flavored with lime juice and fresh mint. Carol's favorite was the vegetable. Mine was the lobster. For us East Texans, they are reminiscent of Natchitoches meat pies, done in miniature. Yummy and filling.

Next came Tropical Grilled Shrimp Lettuce Boats ($5) from the bar menu. Imagine a citrusy piece of heaven made with grilled shrimp, avocado, chopped peanuts, pineapple, mango and lime juice served in a lettuce cup. They were light, tasty and just nearly perfect. The boats would make the perfect lunchtime or light supper appetizer. Add one of the hearty salads or a delicate wrap and you'd be good to go.

"No need to gush really, but the lettuce boats were so yummy," Carol said. "I could eat just that every time."

For our main course, we shared the Masala Fish Fry ($14) and Spice Traders Grilled Ahi Tuna ($19).

The fish was an Eastern take on the traditional English fish and chips. The batter was flavored with Kingfisher beer, chick pea flour, garam masala and chopped cilantro. It came with potato wedges, tangy tropical slaw and a chile lime vinaigrette that was spicy, tangy and sweet at the same time. The Indian Ranch dressing had the look and texture of tartar sauce, but it was infinitely lighter and brighter.

The tuna was like velvet on a plate. It was crusted with cardamom, fennel, coriander and toasted sesame seeds, grilled to perfection and served on a polenta cake made of powered rice that had the consistency of mashed potatoes, but was filled with spice. I haven't had tuna prepared so well since my last trip to Maui.

Carol agreed. "The tuna was about the best I've ever had - it was perfectly cooked and needed nothing to make my 'hungries' happily and deliciously gone," she added.

Bengal Coast's menu offers several vegetarian dishes in every category except South Asian Stir Frys. I was tempted to try some of the spicy hot items on the menu like Chilled Yellow Fin Tuna lettuce boats and Thai Lobster wraps, but just wasn't brave enough. Maybe I'll work up enough courage to sample them next time around.

"The spices had heat, but not fire, which was a wonderful surprise for a wuss like me," Carol said. "I feel like a grown-up because for the first time ever I said, 'Yes, it was spicy, but I loved it!'"

We passed on desserts, but I'll going back to sample the banana-coconut cheesecake, the chocolate spring roll with cardamom scented whipped cream.

Also of note is the creative menu of specialty cocktails created especially by Brezinski and his staff. The drinks range from $7 to $10 and include a Lychee Basil Mojito, Hendricks Cucumber Cooler, Lemon Grass Ginger Martini and a Bengal Coastini.

One interesting element to Bengal Coast's design is the shared lavatory space outside the individual mens and ladies restrooms.

"I just wanted to add a kind of provocative element, something that wasn't too ordinary and kind of matched the risk that I was taking with the vision of the restaurant in general," Brezinski said. "In many of the newer east and west coast restaurants I visited there's a lot of this 'shared' restroom thing going on. I don't like shared stalls but I thought the hand-washing area was kind of 'fun' and decided to incorporate it into our restaurant."

There is one women's and one men's fully self-contained restrooms with a sink and a full-length mirror for those who are not comfortable with the shared concept idea.

Brezinski and his top shelf team of chefs, bar tenders and servers are onto something. Asian food and its exotic spices have always been intriguing, but until Bengal Coast, it was difficult to find a restaurant interested in educating and cultivating its clientele about the world of Eastern delicacies. Brezinski and his staff have opened a door onto an intoxicating landscape of new flavors, impeccable service and a true passion for a complete dining experience.

"When I see a table of people enjoying a good meal and a bottle of wine, I know I'm doing something right," Brezinski said as he sat at our table to visit. "I am optimistic that we are on the right track and we will stay the course as we try to earn our way in this very competitive market."

Bengal Coast is located in the Centrum Building at 3102 Oaklawn Ave. at the corner of Oaklawn and Welborn. There is free parking in the Centrum garage, but we took advantage of the friendly, complimentary valet parking right on the street. Hours: Sunday -Thursday, 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.; Friday - Saturday, 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Price for appetizer, entre and dessert - between $25 and $50. All major credit cards are accepted. Reservations are available at 214-521-8600. Check out their website, www.bengalcoast.com for a printable version of driving directions and the main menu. Enjoy!

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