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Ghee Whiz 

Perfect double bill: Amber India in Mountain View and Satyajit Ray in Palo Alto

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
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I've been spending two nights a week in India lately, courtesy of the Satyajit Ray film festival at the Stanford Theatre (221 University in Palo Alto, through Dec. 21). Ray, the great humanist of Indian cinema, directed some 40 movies in a career that ran from 1955 to 1991 (he died in 1992). With the help of the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection in Santa Cruz, the festival has amusingly programmed Ray's movies with some of his favorite American movies. "In some cases there may be a thematic link," the flier says, and a few of the pairings I saw were clear: Charulata, aka The Lonely Wife, was shown with Billy Wilder's Sabrina, and they're both about women torn between two men; Parash Pathar, aka The Philosopher's Stone, was wittily paired with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and they're both about wish fulfillment through magic or fantasy. But why, I wondered as I watched the early feminist film Mahanagar, aka Big City, was it shown with The Awful Truth, in which Irene Dunne is leaving Cary Grant for Ralph Bellamy, and not for independence? (A quixotic choice, to be sure, and one that she reconsiders, happily.) And then, in a scene in Mahanagar where the working wife visits an ailing Anglo-Indian colleague at home, I saw the (almost subliminal) link: an 8-by-10 glossy of Grant on the bedroom wall.

If I'm going to make the 60-mile round-trip drive on a regular basis, I need more waiting for me down south than a couple of movies, no matter how posh the setting (and the Stanford Theatre is a jewel, a beautifully restored and maintained relic from the golden age of movie palaces, with a soaring lobby, a huge screen, and a Wurlitzer that magically rises during evening intermissions for a brief concert). My predilections being what they are, the big draw is not University Avenue's shopping (though I did make a few purchases at the Domus housewares and gift store, conveniently located right next to the theater, that are the very definition of impulse buys – unless you've ever walked into a store and, when asked, "What are you looking for?" answered, "A plastic plate in the shape of a slice of pizza, and Christmas tree ornaments that look like a Weber kettle and a three-tiered tea tray, please"), but a good, very good, Indian restaurant.

On my first visit to the festival, I queried Dr. Dilip K. Basu, the director of the Ray Collection, on the best local Indian restaurant, and he answered, with alacrity, "Amber," as did several other festivalgoers I chatted up. So, before attending the double bill of Home and the World, based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, and Ray's documentary on Tagore (whose art school Ray attended), I showed up at the door of Amber India, in an unprepossessing mini-mall in Mountain View a few minutes' drive from the theater.

The pleasing, calm, creamy interior of Amber India is much more luxurious than its facade would suggest, I was happy to see as I perused the several-paged menu. I wanted to taste many things, so the combination menu – featuring seekh kabab (a fresh sausage made from minced lamb, cooked in the tandoori oven), tandoori chicken, chicken do piaza (a curry), salad, palak paneer, rice, and a dessert of gulab jamun – for $24.95 seemed the way to go, as otherwise I would have been able to try only one or two dishes (main courses run $8.75 to $26.95). The server warned me that there would be too much food; "I'll take the rest home," I said, airily, and even dared to add a soup to my order, the unfamiliar nariyal saar.

And I was glad I did: The fragrant, clear broth, full of meaty sliced mushrooms, tasted cleanly and delightfully of coconut, basil, and ginger, almost Thai in flavor, and was an exciting harbinger of what was to come. The green salad that came with the dinner was handsomely arranged: Rounds of peppers and slices of carrot and (unripe) tomatoes were laid carefully on top of leaf lettuce, like a mosaic, and dabbed with a spicy vinaigrette. The dinner was nicely served, in individual copper pots – the seekh kabab juicy, laden with minced onions, garlic, and ginger; the mild curry, made with boneless chicken, pleasantly oniony. The big surprise was the plump, moist, smoky pieces of tandoori chicken, which often emerge from their brief stay in the high heat of the tandoor distressingly dry. I liked the palak (spinach) more than the too-firm chunks of paneer (fresh cheese) it was cooked with. Quite a bit of my meal came home with me; I was only sorry that containers of the house condiments, a creamy mint and a sweet tamarind sauce, did not find their way into the takeout bag, as requested.

A few days later, on a rainy Saturday, Robert drove down with me, for The Philosopher's Stone as well as Amber India's buffet lunch. A clutch of people waited outside the door, and we joined them after adding our name to a list. We were seated after only 10 minutes (the restaurant has three good-size rooms, one of which was filled that afternoon with a huge children's birthday party, from which emerged happy noises and beautiful kids dressed in astonishing clothes. My favorite outfit was a dress made of stiff white brocade adorned with loops of the same fabric heavily embroidered with pearls, and Robert's was a pair of finely pleated, diaphanous, shocking pink pants). At the buffet, the long table for the hot dishes ran along one wall and featured 11 huge, gleaming copper casseroles filled with vegetable and meat dishes. (Well, actually, all the meat dishes were made with chicken – my one criticism of that day's menu, which varies from day to day.) (You can also order from the a la carte menu.)

I followed my usual, somewhat unsatisfactory, buffet behavior, which is to try a dab of everything on offer and then return for larger portions of what I like best (the unsatisfactory part is that I'm often full after the first go-round). In addition to the hot buffet, Amber boasts a cold one, with rice salad, potato salad, chickpeas, and what turned out to be one of my favorite dishes, small puri (puffed rice wafers) surrounded by a dozen little dishes full of chopped onions, peppers, fresh green herbs, yogurt, and dried spices. The idea is to dust the wafers with spices and sprinkle them with the other ingredients, according to your desire (the wafers look like miniature Jackson Pollocks when you're done). They taste wonderful: bright, crunchy, full of flavor.

The tandoori chicken was as good as before; some of the standouts among the other dishes included two that are not on the regular menu but show up frequently at the buffet, chickpea dumplings in curry sauce and mushroom caps in cream sauce. We liked the unusual boondi raita, yogurt with fried dumplings. Robert's favorite was Amber India's justly famed butter chicken, shredded tandoori chicken in a deep-orange, deeply flavored sauce made with lots of ghee (clarified butter), tomatoes, and fenugreek. Kesari kheer (rice pudding with nuts, cardamom, and saffron) and sliced fresh fruit was a lovely way to finish the entire meal, an amazing bargain at $11.50.

But perhaps my most memorable meal at Amber India was the glorious dinner party assembled by my friend Tom after seeing Mahanagar. The restaurant suavely handled the increase in our number from nine to 11, and served us a feast that began with classic vegetable samosas (pastries stuffed with mashed potatoes and peas); crunchy, stringy pakoras (fritters of shredded vegetables); and the ones I liked most, smoky little shami kabab, patties of minced lamb and lentils. We went on to tandoori mixed grill (the stars, again, being the chicken and the seekh kabab; the boneless chicken tikka and the chunks of lamb were somewhat dry), tandoori seafood (the best of which was, surprisingly, not the glamorous shrimp or lobster, but the spicy fish tikka, big slabs of Chilean sea bass that were moist and still custardy at the center, under their crisp exteriors), and two unusual and exciting lamb curries: chandani gosht, in which the lamb is bathed in a mild, thick ground-almond sauce scented with cardamom (made for drenching the fluffy, dry rice), and mirch la gosht, a hotter dish, with a dark sauce redolent of peppercorns and green chiles. The dal bukhara (lentils cooked with cream and tomatoes), baingan bharta (a purée of eggplant stewed with cream), and especially the pindi chole (toothy, hot-spiced chickpeas coated with mango powder) were enjoyed along with assorted breads (particularly the onion kulcha and pudina paratha, whole wheat with mint). But the deeply colored, deeply flavored butter chicken was again acclaimed -- Beth e-mailed, "I can't stop thinking about that butter chicken! We will have to go to Amber again soon."

I'm thinking maybe Saturday, Dec. 6, when we can see The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha and One Hundred Men and a Girl (starring Ray's pet, Deanna Durbin), and feast afterward on hot goa fish curry, lamb korma in yogurt and coriander, biryani rice – and, of course, butter chicken.

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Meredith Brody

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