Neela Paniz, 61, raised the bar on ethnic dining in the Napa Valley when she opened her new restaurant, Neela’s, in downtown Napa in early 2009. Paniz has been in the California restaurant business for two decades. After building a dedicated following at her restaurant, Bombay Café, in West Hollywood, Paniz wrote a cookbook, The Bombay Café (Ten Speed Press, 1998). Paniz says that she first learned to cook as a student when she came to stay with an aunt in the United States. She describes her food as “Indian home cooking with a light touch.” Items from her personal art collection, including a 100-year-old canvas mural painted with vegetable dyes and a large bronze statue of Ganesh, set the tone of a traditional Indian home at the restaurant. Paniz recently spoke with Wine Spectator about wine and Indian cuisine.
Wine Spectator: How did you get into the restaurant business?
Neela Paniz: In 1989, I opened Chutneys in West LA. This was in the heyday of fast food salsa bars, tacos, and chicken on the grill. I wanted to do the same thing with Indian food, and since I love to make chutney, we called it Chutneys and served tandoori chicken and freshly made chutneys. I stayed with it for about a year and a half. My future business partner, David Chaparro, used to come to Chutneys every day. We decided to go into business together and traveled to India to sample foods. We came back and opened Bombay Café, which I sold in 2007, because I was just tired of it and thought I was going to retire.
My husband and I had been visiting Napa for years. Last year, we again visited Napa, and he asked if I would ever consider opening a restaurant in there. It’s a tough economic scene in which to open a brand new business, but there was no upscale Indian food to be had in the Napa Valley.
WS: Can you talk about what, if any, role wine played in your family home in India?
NP: When I was growing up, wine came from Europe and was very, very expensive. Nobody served wine with meals. You had your cocktails before dinner, a holdover from the days of the British occupation of India, then drank water or sometimes beer with your dinner. Wine was something that you picked up abroad. The import of alcohol was very restricted in India, and exorbitant in cost.
Today, you can go to a dinner party in India and be served wine. Lots of Indians have been educated abroad, and adopt the customs of where they have lived. They lean toward Italian, French and German wines. And then it seems that parts of India are suitable for growing grapes and making wine.
WS: How did you become interested in wine?
NP: Over the years, I’ve learned to enjoy wine with meals, but I don’t consider myself any kind of wine connoisseur. I choose my wines on personal taste. And I still have my cocktail before dinner.
WS: Are there any wines that you feel pair especially well with your food?
NP: I like Riesling and Gewürztraminer, especially from Alsace. I think they pair well with my food. We offer Zanetti Prosecco on our wine list, and I think it goes beautifully with most Indian food.
WS: What are some particularly successful pairings from Neela’s menu and wine list?
NP: The Meen Moili (fish in a coconut-based curry sauce) with an Alsatian Riesling, a [Marc] Tempé from 2005, with its pear and ripe stone fruit flavors. Another great dish is the shrimp Bassar (lots of onions, chiles, ginger, tomatoes and coriander) with an Austrian Riesling from Lehensteiner, bone dry, or a Bauer Grüner Veltliner, which is also bone dry, and green.
WS: Any tips for pairing wine with Indian ingredients and recipes?
NP: I like to put anything with heat in it next to high-acid wines, for balance. And I like to take into consideration the weight or body of the food, matching or contrasting it with the body of the wine.
The spicy marinade gives these simply prepared shrimp considerable zing. To serve them as an appetizer, choose small shrimp because they are easier to eat, and pass them with wooden picks. As a main dish for dinner, larger shrimp work well, served with rice and vegetables. Pairing suggestion: Pinot Blanc from Alsace.
• 1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
• 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
• 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
• 4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
• 2 green serrano chiles, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
• 1 1/2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
• Juice of 1 lemon
1. Place shrimp in mixing bowl with the turmeric, cayenne, garlic and green chiles. Toss to coat and refrigerate for at least a half-hour, but not more than four hours.
2. In heavy non-stick skillet, heat the ghee on high heat. Tilt the pan to form a pool of the butter. Carefully add the mustard seeds and immediately cover with a lid. After a few seconds, when the popping has subsided, lift the lid and add the shrimp and marinade to the pan.
3. Stir and toss shrimp until they turn pink, about 4 to 5 minutes. Season with the salt, lemon juice and cilantro. Stir well and transfer from the pan to a serving platter. Serves 6 to 8.
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