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.