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An exceptionally pleasant setting for fresh Indian fare in the ever-evolving Mission

Wednesday, Jun 2 2004
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"It's not easy to park around there," I said, somewhat automatically, to Peter, after he'd not only agreed to join me for dinner at a new Indian restaurant on Guerrero near 22nd Street, but also offered to drive. This was preparatory to offering to pay for parking in a nearby garage, but Peter would have none of it: "I used to live at that corner," he said, establishing his neighborhood credentials. (Though I wasn't quite clear why his familiarity with the block a decade ago would make parking there any easier. Although I'm constantly assured that the parking situation in San Francisco isn't as bad as it was a few years ago, I'm so skittish that I occasionally find myself grabbing a spot a number of blocks before I should even start looking. I get too excited, too early; I call this premature exhilaration.)

After a brief exchange concerning addresses, it turns out that Peter lived in the very same building that houses Essence of India, which a colleague had tipped as tasty and cheap, as well as new. Whether it's because of Peter's knowledge of the area or just parking karma, we slide into a spacious spot, no parallel parking skills required, right around the corner. As we walk down 22nd, Anita points out the original location of Good Vibrations; she once lived in the neighborhood, too.

Peter has seized upon the opportunity to deliver a present to a friend who still lives in the old apartment. He's cradling a somewhat alarming souvenir, a metal pen stand featuring the Texas Book Depository made notorious by the JFK assassination. "Did you check out what it's worth on eBay?" I ask, somewhat automatically. "No," he says, "I've never seen one before." "I have," I say, recalling the astonishing tiny-buildings collection I once saw in an architecture writer's house, which had colonized every flat surface not used for sitting or lying down. It even filled one of his bathtubs. The Dealey Plaza pen stand was one of his prizes.

"You'll get a kick out of the apartment," Anita says, as we wait for the door to open. Kick is an understatement: I don't just feel real estate lust for the high-ceilinged rooms, I'm dazzled by their contents. The place is like a highly selective yet overwhelming museum of popular culture, and there's too much to take in. I'm especially taken by a dense, beautifully arranged display of dozens, maybe hundreds, of little plastic figures, featuring robots, superheroes, and oddities. In another room, there's an even more entrancing display of small figures, but these ones were created by their friend Paul, a multitalented artist who has added disturbing and humorous elements to the miniatures. I immediately covet a tiny, busty Madonna moodily contemplating a floating hot dog. Paul declines our offer of dinner; he's working on a painting, and his girlfriend will be expecting a meal when she comes over in a couple of hours.

A heretofore unseen flatmate emerges from a room that seems to my Alice-in-Wonderland eyes even more high-ceilinged than the rest of the apartment; it's completely lined with books. We're introduced, and I think his name is Al. He urges Peter and Anita to come see him in a show he's been doing in a local bar: "Time is running out. The place is up for sale. On eBay." The penny drops; this isn't Al, but Hal, whose "Ask Dr. Hal" act at the Odeon has been touted to me repeatedly by another colleague.

When we ask Dr. Hal to join us at dinner, he, too, is otherwise engaged. So it's just the three of us who sit down at an immaculately white-linened table downstairs. The walls are painted in a golden, uneven treatment that decorators often use to evoke Tuscany, and the two sculptural hanging light fixtures could be in any hip modern space, but India is conjured, discreetly, by a few carefully displayed silver and brass decorations, including two animal statues tucked into a niche above the entrance. I especially like the long banquette upholstered in a gold-embroidered burgundy plush. It's very comfy, as well as calm and soothing, and we're impressed.

"This used to be a stationery store," Peter says, "and the owners lived in the back." "They sold other things, too," Anita says, reminiscing; at the closeout sale, she'd purchased a Bible with a mother-of-pearl cover, which she regrets having giving away "in a fit of generosity." (I refrain from asking whether she'd checked it out on eBay.) Peter relates the subsequent gastronomic history of this address: a pricey French place called Le Trou; the Moa Room, with a chef from New Zealand; an early showcase for Lance Dean Velasquez, who now cooks at Home; and Neo, when the room was all-white.

The menu looks like a greatest-hits rendition of Indian and Pakistani fare: samosas, pakoras, many tandoori items, and a dozen vegetable dishes. Assorted curries (the spicy vindaloo, creamy korma, spinachy sagwala, fried bhuna) are offered with a choice of chicken, lamb, or prawns. A section called "chef's recommendation" includes chicken and lamb tikka masala and scallop korma.

There's a short list of wines and beers, with the requisite Indian labels available, but we all opt for mango lassi, a sweet but unusually thin version (which is probably why Peter and I suck down two each).

We try to order appetizers of fried fish kofta and tandoori buffalo wings (which we've never seen before), but we're not going to see them tonight, either; neither is available. Everything else we want is, however, and the table is soon covered with many -- probably too many -- dishes. The components of the tandoori mixed grill are all moist and lightly imbued with smoke; there are several pieces of boneless chicken tikka, a quarter of tandoori chicken on the bone, juicy minced lamb formed into sausagelike seekh kebab, and one lone but plump prawn. The chunks of lamb covered with the dense, dark, reduced bhuna sauce are still juicy, too, though the bhuna technique of frying spices in oil hasn't resulted in any out-of-the-ordinary flavor.

All the vegetable dishes we get taste just-cooked: aloo gobi, cauliflower that's still at the crisp-tender stage, with chunks of potato in a sauce stained yellow with turmeric; chana masala, garbanzo beans fragrant with cumin and coriander and mildly hot from cayenne pepper; and my favorite, a mixed vegetable curry whose light, creamy sauce is perfumed with whole cardamom pods. (I crunch down on one, unawares, which reminds me of something I read in an Indian recipe: "Don't eat the whole spices, but no harm will come to you if you do." Except perhaps to your tooth enamel.) Unusually, the cheese naan, described as "stuffed with homemade cheese," actually is: The stuffing, bright with minced vegetables, spills out of the puffy bread, which is hearty enough to be an appetizer. Similarly, the garlic and onion naans are just-baked and generously decorated with their toppings.

We don't need to order dessert -- we've had plenty to eat -- but the creamy rice pudding (kheer, made with almonds and cardamom) entices us to have several spoonfuls more than we intended. Not so the gulab jamoon: We've had more yielding versions of this cakelike milk dumpling drenched in sugary syrup. On the whole, the major pleasure of this meal is its lightness and freshness. We wonder if the slightly flat quality we sense is the result of our hesitation when the waiter asked if we wanted mild, medium, or hot spicing. I comment on the comfortable, charming setting, several notches higher than the usual Indian restaurant décor, especially with Essence of India's reasonable prices. (The friend who told me about the place echoed this when we talked about it later: "It's rare to find an inexpensive Indian place with such an elegant room. Shalimar has wonderful food, but nothing about it inspires you to linger. I'd take my parents here!" I agree; I'd recently had an unexpectedly dazzling $7.95 buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant in the Lower Haight, in a dispiriting room with a paper tablecloth still soiled from the previous diners. The dinner menu looked intriguing, but I wished the place were cheerier. There are people who will put up with discomfort in order to eat interesting food -- I'm one of them -- but pleasurable surroundings are always a plus.) Anita says that her favorite Indian restaurant is still ViKs Chaat in Berkeley. "But there's no ambience!" I say. She corrects me: There is ambience, it's just industrial. "An ambience of discomfort," I say. Which I am willing to endure because the food is so good. And so cheap.

As we walk back to the car, Peter and Anita point out the laundromat that is now a chic dress shop, the dry cleaners that is still miraculously a dry cleaners, and the Irish place that they think has consolidated two vanished and beloved establishments, the Flying Saucer, where they remember the chef-owner's fondness for eighty-sixing customers at will as much as they do his much-vaunted cooking, and Cafe Babar, owned by a guy named Al whose previous establishment, Al's, was known as Formerly Al's after he sold it.

I want to see Dr. Hal before he's Formerly Dr. Hal, so I ask Elissa to join me for Indian chow before and modern vaudeville after. We park a couple of blocks down 22nd, and Elissa notes many cute places she'd like to try as we walk up; I sense her yearning as we pass a new tapas spot, a new Italian place, corner cafes dense with customers. But she's happy with our destination, and vocal in her appreciation of the décor, pointing out two glowing blue and green lamps on the back bar and a couple of chased metal shields on the wall above it. We tell our server that we'd like everything spicy (except for the traditionally bland chicken korma), but our meal runs along the same lines as my previous dinner: impeccably fresh, very edible, but not particularly distinctive. The lamb vindaloo (described as a fusion dish originating in the Portuguese coastal colony of Goa, but seen in a million curry houses) is tipped as "very spicy," but it's just pleasantly so. The chicken korma is properly creamy, and the sauce is welcome over the fluffy but seriously undersaffroned rice of the vegetable biryani. By accident, the waiter brings us shaag aloo, boiled potatoes sauced with supple spinach, as well as the saag paneer, similar spinach with large, firm cubes of homemade cheese, that we'd ordered; he leaves the hearty potatoes as a gift. The best dish of all is the vindi bhaji, carefully cooked sliced okra, an interesting vegetable too rarely seen.

The familiar Indian desserts we try are curiously unfamiliar in texture: the rasmali cake balls too dense, like miniature cannonballs, the pistachio kulfi custardy rather than icy. Elissa is more taken with Essence of India than I am. As we set off toward Dr. Hal, she compares the restaurant to a favorite place in Berkeley, Zatar, whose organic Mediterranean cuisine, heavily influenced by Middle Eastern and North African cooking, is served in a setting she finds intriguingly exotic. "It's like taking a tiny vacation."

The minivacation switches settings to the satisfyingly dark, grungy, and bohemian Odeon, in a less gentrified part of the Mission, where we cling to the comfort of a teeny table and sip White Russians. The room is packed. During the witty and often hilarious show (Dr. Hal's manner is droll, scholarly, and occasionally mildly obscene while answering all manner of questions from the audience), the bar flashes its eBay page on the screens overhead. The bids are up to $3,000; it's clear someone is interested in the Odeon's space. But the reserve has not yet been met.

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Meredith Brody

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