Tucked away in a Novi mall near a movie theater and a cluster of chain restaurants is a small and fairly plain new restaurant that’s as unassuming as its surroundings.
What’s the attraction? Superb and unusual food from the Indian province of Goa — food worth finding in a maze of suburban mall traffic and anonymous streets.
Just beyond a Cold Stone Creamery is Indo Fusion, a restaurant with some of the most original and best Indian cooking to grace the western suburbs.
The cuisine of Goa — a small region on the western coast of India that for 300 years was a Portuguese colony — is distinctly different from other Indian regions. It’s a careful melding of Portugal and India.
Goa is a place where vestiges of Europe’s colonial days are still visible in the architecture, culture, and cuisine.
In the main city, Panaji, three centuries of Portuguese rule are evident everywhere. Streets with such names as Avenida dom João Castro and Emidio Garcia share the local map with Mahatma Gandhi Boulevard, Swami Vivekanand Road, and the Kadamba Bus Terminal. Much of the look and layout of the city remain strongly European.
Here in metro Detroit, a bit of that scene in the form of Indo Fusion occupies a corner in the West Oaks Mall at the Fountain Walk (a partial brick path leading to the parking lot).
Guests seated on one side of the restaurant can see kitchen staff as they roll out dough for the fresh naan on a flour-dusted worktop, stir steaming pots of dense sauce and pork cubes for the sorpotel, and wield a flurry of frying pans tossing aromatically spiced whole fresh fish.
The interior of Indo Fusion is standard mall décor. Directly in the front of the door sits a deli case full of cold drinks and a cash register where patrons pick up take-out orders.
The two-story room is bright and crisp with two coconut-thatched tiki-style beach stands dividing the kitchen and dining room and fake palm trees gracing each end. Café-style wooden tables are bare, set with nothing more than flatware wrapped in paper napkins.
Then there’s the food.
Goan cooking has vaguely Latin-sounding names, such as sanna, xacuti, and sorpotel, with sauces made of such combinations as mint and coriander and a sweet-ish vinegar.
Fish and coconut are among the dominant elements of Goan cooking. The many spices used include mace, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, star anise, poppyseeds, cloves, chilies, cilantro, and garlic.
For anyone who has had the famed Indonesian riestoffel dishes, those great endless feasts of one spicy dish after another — a vestige of Holland’s colonial times — Goan food will ring somewhat familiar.
Jason Noronha, the Goan owner-chef of Indo Fusion, came to the United States in 1991 at age 13, attended the culinary arts program at Washtenaw Community College, and then cooked on cruise ships and for the U.S. Navy as a civilian chef. He opened Indo Fusion in August 2011. The menu, although heavily Goan, reflects the rest of India and other areas of Asia.
“I wanted to do a lot of the kinds of foods I had all over the world,” Noronha says. “I do everything with a bit of a Goan twist, which is a lighter dish than Indian and with different spicing.
“Indian is heavier. They use a lot more chilies, for instance. We use more coconut milk and vinegar compared to heavy cream in dishes. They also use tomato. We don’t. We are more into grilled meats and more seafood.”
Our first visit to Indo Fusion was in the company of a Portuguese-Goan surgeon, Dr. Yvan Silva, who says he likes Indo Fusion’s authenticity and quality. Silva suggested we try one or two fish dishes, because they reflect the cooking of his home.
The prize was a delicate Indian Ocean fish, a whole pomfret (butterfish), head and tail on, that had been sliced at various spots down to the bone before cooking with fresh and dried spices inserted to marinate. The fish arrived tableside gently pan-fried.
For calamari lovers, Indo Fusion offers the entire creature, a squid stuffed with shrimp and other spicy fillings.
We picked several appetizers from the list of daily specials, including a crisp Goan shrimp served on a fresh cabbage-and-cilantro slaw; delightfully light and delicately floured fried soft-shell crabs, which were crunchy warm and hinting of what seemed to be anise and mace; and another dish of large cauliflower florets dusted in spiced flour, fried to a barely soft inside with a crunchy exterior, and then coated with sweet-and-sour sauce.
The blending of Portugal and India is most apparent in a dish on the menu called Goan Chorizo Curry. Just as it sounds, it blends the traditional curry basics of potato, onion, tomato, and curry spices with a spicy sausage of Portuguese origin.
Another delightful dish that bridges the two cultures is a pork called sorpotel. Its base is what might be loosely described as a Portuguese version of pork chili, but with rich, deep, fragrant, and powerful Indian spices. It’s served with sannas, a kind of steamed dumpling made with coconut, milled rice, and buttermilk, and molded into little round cakes that are spongy and soft.
The menu at Indo Fusion includes several familiar dishes, Goan versions of chicken tandoori, tikka, and assorted kebabs — both lamb and prawn versions. And there’s a lineup of five full-vegetarian dishes, a Kashmiri lamb dish and another one from Pakistan.
On our visit in October, Indo Fusion had just received, but did not yet have, its final state approval for a full liquor license, which Noronha says he expects by this month.
Overall, what I liked was that Goan cuisine sidesteps some of the weightiness of other regional Indian dishes. It also has intense and varied aromatics and textures.
Indo Fusion is highly recommended — but with an asterisk: It’s not big on atmosphere. That said, the food is magically different from what most of us know as the cuisine of India.