Happy birthday, dear India, happy birthday to you. Although its history extends back to antiquity, this month India turns 50 as an independent nation. And happy birthday, Indian Oven. Although the restaurant has occupied the same spot in the Lower Haight for eight or nine years, exactly two years ago this month it was totally reincarnated. What better excuses, then, for an Indian birthday dinner?
When the first incarnation of Indian Oven materialized, I'd just come back from traveling in India, and was desperately seeking sustenance imbued with the flavors I'd enjoyed there. India Oven's mild, rather sweet cooking struck me as more Haight than Hyderabad, and the fare at most other local Indian eateries seemed equally compromised. I finally found my thrill at North India Restaurant (in the Marina), where seasonings were bold and varied, and the spices, ground fresh daily, gave the dishes the intensity I expected.
Exactly two years ago, an alumnus of North India, Surinder Singh, took over Indian Oven. He soon kidnapped his alma mater's chef, Mohammed Aslam, as well. With India's birthday approaching, it was high time to rekidnap my friend Danny, a musician who lived and studied in India for several years, and drag him to another Indian feast. (He'd joined us at the Ganges a few months ago.)
When Americans think "India" and "feast" in the same phrase, they usually envision upper-class Punjabi cuisine, like that served at Punjabi-run Indian Oven. This was the table that developed in India early in the 16th century, during the time of the Mogul (Mongol) conquerors. The Moguls moved into India when they were done taking over Persia, then the fancy-food capital of the universe. After a few years of gourmandising there, the conquerors had completely forgotten their ancestral diet of fermented mare's milk. Arriving in India, the Mogul emperor, like wealthy tourists everywhere, commenced kvetching about the food. India was already short of meat (hence the recommendation in Hindu scriptures of vegetarianism for all but the ruling/military Kshatriya caste), whereas the Persian court was rich in mutton and chicken. The conquerors pined for leavened breads, pilaf-style rice, and rich sweets redolent of rose water -- and they screamed for ice cream.
Emperors usually get what they want. In short order they imported the Persian cornucopia into northern India, including the ultrahot tandoor oven, flash-roast meats, and bake-leavened flatbreads like naan and kulcha. Needless to say, your average Punjabi peasant rarely if ever gets such goodies, but most Indian dinner houses (including many in India) have adopted this elite cooking style. (That's why the menus read so similar, even if the cooking quality varies sharply.)
Arriving at Indian Oven, we found a clot of hungry people milling around the doorway inhaling the tandoor aroma. These were not starving paupers, but slavering patrons who, failing to make reservations, were waiting for tables or takeout. Entering, we noticed that the room had been redone, and looked a good deal more "Indian" than its earlier incarnation: The walls have been washed in golden ocher shades, with a design painted near the ceiling, and there's a small bar along one side and an open kitchen along the back. The tables (about 12, seating four each) are not only perpetually full, but are jammed together to maximize the population per square foot. (Are we not in India?) We watched bustling waiters following the traffic pattern common to one-lane roads the world over: If one emerges, dish-laden, from the kitchen when another is approaching, the latter backs up. Seconds after we were seated, a waiter urged us to immediately order appetizers and drinks, even if we hadn't yet chosen entrees from the lengthy menu. (The beverage list proved intelligent; along with Indian beers, there are reasonably priced curry-friendly wines, like Gewurtztraminer). "Fastest service I've ever seen in an Indian restaurant," I whispered, or maybe hollered, once the waiter left. Danny, next to me, agreed, but I had to repeat it for TJ, just across the table. Alas, this is yet another eatery with a noise level just short of a motocross track.
The plate of assorted appetizers ($3.50) included a luscious, well-seasoned potato samosa (turnover), with a touch of spiciness. The papadum (fried lentil-flour cracker) was normal for its ilk. (Most restaurants, like most home cooks, use packaged papads.) The cumin-rich garbanzo-flour coating of the onion pakora (fritter) had just a hint of greasiness. At the waiter's urging we tried the Bombay pakora ($4.95), a humongous heap of perfectly cooked calamari rings in the same savory batter. The table sauces included a refreshing mint-yogurt chutney with an odd, spinachlike undertone, and standard-issue mild tamarind sauce and mango chutney. A bowl of assorted breads ($4.50) included excellent garlic naan, luscious onion kulcha (with lots of cilantro), and exceptionally good buttered chapatti (flatbread).
The mixed tandoori entree ($12.95) had chicken legs and chicken tikka (boneless breast cubes), flash-roasted wondrously tender under a brightly seasoned yogurt marinade. A lone prawn was tender, too. Boti (lamb) kebabs included both medium and overcooked pieces, and the thin, dry seekh kebab (lamburger) inspired Danny to reminisce, "I once had a gig playing music at a little Indian restaurant in the East Village, and some of my friends came in and asked me what to order. I said, 'Everything's good.' So they ordered the seekh kebabs -- the one thing that wasn't good, in fact they were terrible! And, wherever you go, the seekh kebabs are no good. Although I did have some decent ones someplace in India -- once." With the tandoori, I wished I'd thought to order some raita (cucumber-yogurt relish) or dal (lentils) for a moist contrast.
Murgh masala ($7.95), Danny's main-course recommendation, had more of the tender, smoky breast cubes in a luxurious creamy tomato sauce. "Some Indian restaurants in the U.S. don't do this authentically," Danny explained. "They just saute raw chicken, instead of taking time to tandoori the chicken and then bone it." This was the real thing, a great match with the pulao ($2), moist, spiced basmati rice studded with large black Pakistani cardamom pods. For a vegetable, we went spicy with dum aloo vindaloo ($6.95), potatoes in a famously fiery sauce from the formerly Portuguese province of Goa. It was spicy, all right, at a level that very few Bay Area restaurants ever approach, with an undertone of sourness. (The word "vindaloo" comes from "vinegar.") Needing a quencher, I got a glass of house-made nimbo pani ($1.50), Indian lemonade, made from emphatically sweetened lemon syrup. Danny awarded it the seal of authenticity, but that didn't make it any less sweet.
For dessert, we checked out kheer ($2), a thin and soupy rice pudding; kulfi ($3), house-made pistachio ice milk, crackly with ice crystals; and the above-average gulab jamun ($2.50), cheese dumplings wrapped in a cozy, fresh-tasting batter, coated with a not excruciatingly sweet syrup. At too many local Indian restaurants, gulab jamun taste of the dried milk used in the packaged mixes. "Even worse," said Danny, "a lot of Indians in America use Bisquick for the coating." "Bisquick, your pants are on fire," I muttered, remembering the old "knock knock" joke.
A week later, we returned with my ex-cousin-in-law Dawn, a semivegetarian, and her fiance, Steve, a semiomnivore. As we approached the restaurant, TJ was saying, "We tried North India last night -- it used to be the best, but ..." "Yes, it was the best," pronounced a clean-cut Indian man, standing outside the door with a pair of handsome Sikhs. "But now we're the best. I stole everybody from there," he said. He confessed he was the owner, and we chatted about Indian food, art, and railways until a waiter emerged with two large bags containing his takeout orders, and he headed for home with the Sikhs and the kebabs. Skipping the appetizers (we'd tasted most of them the previous visit) we headed for the entrees. Saag paneer ($6.95), spinach with cubes of house-made farmer cheese, was simply ideal -- the best I've tasted on any continent. The substantial bites of paneer cheese were firm and toothsome, bedecking minced creamed spinach that retained its fresh green flavor.
Dal ($6.95) brought large lentils in a bold, unusually spicy porridge. "I like the way it starts out quiet and then leaps at you," said Dawn. Raita ($2), cucumber relish, tasted of thin, tangy Indian-style dahi, not dairy-case yogurt. Bengan bartha ($6.95) had roasted chopped eggplant in a mild, pleasant masala. Mixed seafood ($10.95) bathed sea bass and calamari in a gentle curry, although we uncovered none of the advertised scallops or prawns in the mix. Lamb vindaloo ($9.95) was again amazingly sour-spicy (although we could have gotten it milder had we so desired). The unusual goat cheese-stuffed naan ($3.50) soothed our palates, as did the interesting kabuli naan ($1.95), stuffed with pureed apricots and nuts, its gentle sweetness a pleasing contrast to the complex spicings of the other dishes. For dessert, we simply had a round of masala chai (50 cents), creamy spiced tea.
This time, one waiter took our orders but several others brought our dishes, with some apparent discombobulation. We needed to remind them to bring several dishes. They may have wanted to "forget" part of our order because the table for four was patently undersized to hold our feast for four. But a feast it most definitely was -- twice, for the twin birthdays of India and the restaurant. Little wonder that since Surinder stole the chef, Indian Oven has risen to accolades as the city's favorite Indian restaurant.