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Strutting Its Stuff 

PEACOCK has become one of the hottest new restaurants in Kenner, and not just because of those Indian spices.

Before flipping open Peacock's menu, a collection of Indian dishes that aspires to the length of the Upanishads, diners encounter a promise on the cover: "Our spices do not make food HOT ... Rather they add aroma and enhance the natural flavors of a dish." Indeed, I can think of few better paradigms to demonstrate the difference between spicy food and HOT food than Peacock's heady palak paneer, a mustard-green dish of spinach and mild, unmelting cheese that's called saag paneer in other restaurants. If I had to guess -- and with spice compositions this complex, guessing is the only option -- I would say that onions, ginger, turmeric, coriander and chile peppers all contribute to the uncompromising richness of this stew.

But wait, was that a fennel seed in there, too? A hint of asafetida maybe? A cardamom pod? A curry leaf? Each bite at Peacock reveals another wave of seasoning, another partly ground seed or unidentifiable speck of earthy color. Diners may ask for any dish to be prepared mild, medium or hot; like the palak paneer, however, the best concoctions at Peacock are most outstanding for their saturation of fragrant spices and simultaneous balance of tongue-stinging HOTness.

This goes for the lamb kofta curry and its vegetarian cousin, malai kofta. The tandoor-red minced lamb meatballs in the former, and the football-shaped vegetarian dumplings in the latter, come in a brick-red "onion" sauce that's both mellow and complicated, brightened with fresh cilantro leaves. And the same goes for the darkly spiced channa masala (chick peas), which is almost crunchy with mustard seed; for the butter chicken, aromatic with cinnamon or cloves; and for the lamb biryani, whose basmati rice is stained with spices and served additionally with a thick, oily, red curry sauce.

Peacock's multi-page menu pays short shrift to appetizers, but one in particular, chicken Sangrila, should perhaps be a required initiation to the kitchen's seasoning habits. Tender bits of chicken colored a shade of red that makes a beet look demure are assaulted with dry spices, whole dried chiles and citrusy curry leaves.

It's about time an Indian restaurant joined the United Nations of inexpensive ethnic restaurants coursing the length of Kenner's Williams Boulevard. Peacock's beginning was iffy: my first meal there more than a year ago was a disaster in every account, and I predicted it would self-destruct within weeks. Even now, no amount of turquoise paint, gilded fabrics or hypnotic, plunky Indian music can lessen the loneliness inherent in the Shoney's restaurant design. Some customers still fear the spooky mechanical bowing hostess at the entrance (she's actually grown on me). And even the nicest servers break into cold sweats when you decline the lunch buffet and order from the menu instead. Stick to your guns; nothing else matters as dish after dish emerges from the kitchen, each one more devilish in spice content, and sometimes in exoticness, than the last.

Los Angeles has an enviable number of Indian sweet shops. New Yorkers get to choose between competing kosher-vegetarian Indian restaurants. In contrast, the differences between Indian restaurant menus in New Orleans are so minimal that choosing one over another often depends more upon convenience than anything else. While Peacock's menu isn't more ground-breaking than the rest, it does offer the largest regular selection of south Indian specialties, all of which make great light meals or snacks. There are parchment-thin scrolls of rice flour batter filled with turmeric-stained potatoes (masala dosa); thick lentil pancakes embedded with onions and green chiles (uttappam); doughnut-shaped fried lentil cakes (wada); and light rice cakes (idli) that look and feel like white madeleines.

Whatever the order, it's bound to be served with some condiment -- a sauce, a broth or a chutney. By the end of every meal, tables are littered with copper tureens and ramekins that once contained plum-colored tamarind chutney, verdant mint chutney, tomato chutney with curry leaf, acerbic hot vegetable pickles, yogurt raita, raw onions sprinkled with chile powder, or whichever other condiments diners saw fit to request.

Peacock's breads, fundamental to most Indian feasts, are across-the-board superb. While the tandoori meats I tried lacked moisture and tenderness, the tandoor oven's walls work beautifully for baking the well-buttered naan. In addition, whole-wheat pudina paratha is paved with fresh mint, pock-marked kabuli kulcha is embedded with almonds and golden raisins, and the fried poori arrives at the table puffed full of air.

Whether from the ghee, the mustard oil or the intense layering of spices, Peacock's food is filling beyond reason. You might wrap the meal up with a stomach-soothing spiced chai (tea). But that does mean forgoing the frozen mango kulfi and the kheer, a dessert made of rice and milk. In one of her many cookbooks, Madhur Jaffrey begs English-speaking readers to avoid calling Indian kheer rice pudding. "This sweet has been served to kings at banquets and to brides at wedding ceremonies -- in no way does it resemble the stodgy rice pudding seen in the Western Hemisphere!" she writes. The elegant, cardamom-pungent kheer at Peacock, like several other wildly seasoned dishes here, is exactly that: fit for a king.

click to enlarge PEACOCK's lunch buffet often features kheer, an - elegant Indian dessert made of rice and milk. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • PEACOCK's lunch buffet often features kheer, an elegant Indian dessert made of rice and milk.
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