Thursday, April 06, 2006

Eating out desi, in style

Ever been bored of the same types of stuffy, lackluster Indian restaurants that dot towns and cities across the States? All of them seem to work according to a single plan. Quantity and not quality. Low cost all you can eat buffets. Drab décor, with tacky paintings that you could buy in Pondy bazaar (T. Nagar) or a similar place for a 100 rupees. Three types of gravy, yellow, red or green for ALL dishes. And the names would be some combination of “Taj Mahal” or India Palace/garden/house/mansion, or spice rack/bowl/world, with the odd variation of Bombay palace, or Madras house or Delhi pavilion. And with that would end the creativity and yearning for superior quality.

I had often wondered where all those Indian food-entrepreneurs were. After all, there are some superb restaurants in Mumbai or Bangalore or Delhi or Chennai or any other Indian city, that serve Indian food (specific to a region, or just a blend) with style. Why didn’t they make it across the pond and set shop here in the states? And where were the Indian restaurants that were really reaching out to a greater clientele, the many Americans who loved to try good food, and who would spend to get good food, service and ambiance. Geoffery Moore might just call this “Crossing the chasm”.

My quest though was finally fulfilled a few days back, and unsurprisingly, it was California’s Bay area that fulfilled my quest.

My generous cousins decided to take me out to dine in style, and took me to a place called Amber.

The choice of name itself hinted at much thought behind the restaurant. After all, it means sky in Hindi, and is also the name of a beautiful color in English. Perfect for both crowds.

It is located in the former strip-mall now ultra-chic Santana Row in the South Bay area, and even as we entered it, I knew I was at a place that had put in a lot of thought and effort and wanted to make it.

The place is very stylishly designed, with a very modern feel to it. You enter to actually face a small front desk, with a very professional couple (who appear to be the owners and managers) greeting you, and taking your name and group size. The lighting is mellow, but not shabby or too dark. The paintings on the walls fit perfectly with the modern look. They looked very Indian (like M.F. Hussain’s paintings do), AND fit in to the surroundings. The ceiling was rather innovatively done too, black with little twinkling lights doing a good imitation of stars in the sky, and a little translated phrase from the Bhagvad gita adorning the rim. The place was very, very crowded, and so we had to wait. And there was a little waiting lounge with comfortable couches, pretty flowers and some magazines to read. You actually could get comfortable during the five-minute wait (I watched a comet streak across the starry ceiling). Though it is obviously moderately upscale, it retains a relatively laid back atmosphere, and (like any Indian restaurant), there is plenty of pleasant conversation being exchanged at the tables. There is no hint of formality or excessive reserve.

This is one of the few Indian restaurants I’ve been to that actually had a well equipped bar, with a professional bartender tending it. The waiters who waited at the tables seemed to be trained to do their jobs, and were rather smartly turned out. There was neither the overzealous water-filling seen in too many Indian restaurants here, nor was there the marked indifference often seen in many others. The restaurant management has clearly put in a lot of work to make the place just right for people used to certain standards of service, and who are willing to pay for it. And this is the only Indian restaurant I’ve visited in the States that has a real and substantial wine list, from good quality mid-range New and Old world wines, to the premium wines, that are priced in the hundreds of dollars a bottle. Don’t ask me about them though, since those wines elude me even in my rather extravagant dreams.

But then, to repeat an old phrase, the proof of the kebab is in the eating. And the food here doesn’t fail you. It is, to put it simply, outstanding. The food is prepared by trained chefs, who would have fit well in a Taj or Oberoi. The menu is relatively simple, but sufficient. Most of the dishes are fare associated with North-West Indian cooking, with plenty of tandoori dishes. We opted for a kalaunji baingan (an eggplant dish), a dry tandoori pakora like dish made out of makki (corn) and peppers (makai motia seekh), and a simple lahsooni palak, along with some paneer kulchas and naan. The food arrived in immaculately presented serving dishes, and was sumptuous. There was no holding back of the spices, but it was cooked to perfection, and each spice blended with the other, to create three very unique dishes (yes, each dish actually tasted substantially different). Though the hot peppers in the makki dish made tears roll down my eyes (and I’m very tolerant to spice, having developed a taste for this through innumerable green pepper bajjis from the streets of Southern Indian cities), I couldn’t resist continuing to eat it.

The true winners though were the desserts. Here, they’ve achieved what few restaurants have achieved anywhere. They’ve actually managed to perfectly blend Indian and Western desserts. I had a dark-chocolate mousse rasmalai, and it was wonderful. There was a perfectly respectable rasmalai (without the loads of ras it usually swims in), sandwiched by an excellent chocolate mousse, and with a dash of raspberry syrup decorating it. It was indeed a potent yet superb combination. The kulfi was rich and creamy, and had figs and honey in its core, and was surrounded by some mango pulp. The gajar halwa pie too did desserts proud. The desserts somehow retained an Indian feel, though appeared very western.

Sometimes restaurants try to be too ambitious. They strive for tradition and modernity, convention and risk. Amber has just the right blend of all of this, and actually manages to pull it off well.

If I’m in the Bay area again, and any of you decide to invite me out for dinner, I’ll gladly be taken to Amber for dinner.

16 comments:

Suhail said...

How often you come down South? I remember you once mentioned visiting Dallas(or was it Houston?). I'd love to take you to a simple yet v.good Southern-Mexican restaurant here.

Do ping me nxt time you are down in Austin. (even if not Austin, any nearby cities, I can probably still make it).

bongop'o'ndit said...

Sunil,

Agree on the blandness in terms of food, décor or service of most Indian restaurants in the US.

One reason for not having many regional or focused cuisine restaurant in the US might be the fear of lack of mass appeal in places with small south Asian population. I have had really great Bengali food in Los Angeles and New York - both were run by immigrant Bangladeshis. And both places were quite crowded with a large number of Bengali patrons (apart from a few non-Bong Indians and Americans). I don't think many people will risk such ventures outside the big cities. Secondly, I am not sure how easy it is to get cooks/chefs on immigrant visas into the country. Therefore you have to rely on the local immigrant population for labor, which again is concentrated in the big cities.

Intriguingly, I found a great Indian restaurant with an off-beat deco, great service and food in Asheville, North Carolina. Come to think of it, its not exactly surprising since Asheville is quite a liberal-hippie kind of place. Here are a couple of reviews:
http://www.ashevilledining.com/cgi-bin/disp?section=reviews&id=40
http://www.mountainx.com/dining/2005/1005mela.php

I also finally found place in Durham, NC that has a refreshingly different buffet menu with items like Chicken65, chicken chettinad, egg bhurjis, tinda etc. They are also not afraid of spicing up their food (and I have seen quite a few Americans frequenting the place). However, their décor is an eyesore and the less said about the service, the better.

Hopefully, as the Indian polulation expands to smaller cities, we can find more 'exciting'
restaurants opening up.

Cheers,
BongoP'o'ndit

PS - as a disclaimer, I am not associated with any of the restaurants mentioned here :-) - but if you do happen to be in the research triangle area of North Carolina, I will be happy to take you out.

Sunil said...

Suhail......certainly, certainly. It will be one.

Bongopondit......i will take up your offer of a gin-martini in the NC research triangle area some day.
But regional and specific food have made their entry.....the Bay area is full of them. They are nice, serve good food, and all that, but can't *cross the chasm*, and reach out to a wider market. In my experience in the states, i have seen only few examples of that (and Amber is one of them).

Anil S said...

Chaat Cafe in Fremont,CA. Woodlands in Newark/Fremont,CA were the authentic ones AFAI can tell about Indian restaurants.

mogolov said...

Yes. Amber is certainly a good one. Although I still wonder, why there isn't any upscale south indian restaurants anywhere in the US. Maybe its because there is little meat in tamilian/telugu/kannadiga cuisine?

Eswaran B said...

mogolov,

Little meat in Tamil/Telugu/Kannada cuisine?!! You have never been to the south, have you?

The main reason there are only veggie restaurants in the south indian category in the US is because the south indian immigrant population in the US is mostly(atleast until late 1990s) vegetarian. That is changing though.

Sunil said...

Anil.....thanks. Actually, here, authenticity wasn't a crib. There are many of those, including my favorite eatery, but there are few Indian restaurants in the states that really try to go upscale, and cater to more than just a group of desis. Amber was the first restaurant i've been to that actually did that well.

Mogolov, Eswaran.......there really isn't a problem with vegetarian food......here in Seattle, there are some very good vegetarian restaurants that cater to a very diverse group of people. One of my favorites is a thai place called "Araya", that's vegan, and excellent. It's even moderately priced, but does a great job. But i haven't seen Indian restaurants actually do a good job catering to it's clients. There's an "udupi palace" here, it's vegetarian, and rather awful. The dosas are like soggy paper, and the idlis are only good as cricket balls. You won't make it too far with stuff like that (either that, or just give south indian food a bad name).

Eswaran.....even in South India, you'll find more veggie restaurants than mixed ones, because it is largely preferred. But it's certainly not so in Kerala or around Mangalore etc....which can be a meat lover's paradise. Wont you agree??

losing now said...

Guys:
Agree, that Indian restaurants in US are monotonous and boring...with similar sounding names, decor and menu items.

Of these boring restaurants, there is one I know of that serves finger-licking awesome food - Passage to India in Lawrenceville, NJ (near Princeton). Try it, when you are in Central/Southern NJ. They have Chaat nights on Wed ..which are fantastic.

disclaimer : I have no affiliation with this restaurant.
AJ

alli said...

There's a restaurant in Chicago called Vermilion, which serves Latin-Indian fusion cuisine. I went there in December and it was a fantastic place, with great food and amazing decor (large prints of on-set hindi films, abhishek was in a few of them). But here in South Bend I have to settle for egg curry mix and frozen parothas...

Sunil said...

losing now.....NJ might have some of the *best* Indian food. But i don't know if they cross boundaries.

Alli....now that is a very interesting concept....latin-Indian fusion. I would like to try that. Chicago...here i come.

Anonymous said...

Bay Area now has a photo-based Indian restaurant guide - http://www.BayMasala.com

rahulv said...

Being a cosmopolitan city, Delhi has encompassed varied flavours in its diet. People from different corners of India have given Delhi a mini India feel. Over the years they have stuck to their cuisines and eating habits like a ritual. So you find all sorts of Indian cuisine in Delhi. You can try South Indian, Gujarati, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Bengali and Goan cuisine. Then there are expats, who bring global flavours to Delhi.

if u want to know more about it pls visit:

Eating out in Delhi

Anonymous said...

Do you know of this restaurant called "Breads of India & gourmet curries" in Berkeley and Oakland? I have tried it numerous times and the food is outstanding. They specialize in regional indian dishes like Kodi Tamatar, Tagaru Masala, Gosht Duengozi (from Kashmir to Kerala). Ingrients used are fresh and free-range plus the menu changes everyday!! It's a must try for gourmet palates.

Anonymous said...

Beshte food in Bay Yarea is Saravanaa. Why one of you are not opening a restaurant? You're aall only dreaming of wopening the nechsht Googull aah? Open the bloody otel I say.

:D

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