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Spicy Sanctuary 

Wednesday, Sep 22 1999
It was a dark and stormy night. If this had been January, that would not have been my, or anyone's, lead sentence. But this was early September, the time when San Franciscans traditionally throw off their summer-long fog and bask in sunshine they will not know again until April or possibly May. What made the evening in question doubly sinister (the only adjective that seems appropriate) was thunder and lightning, the likes of which we have not seen hereabouts since the Bush administration. The lightning illuminated the sky in great sheets while droplets of warm precipitation splattered windshields and fire hydrants at irregular intervals. Obviously, something -- meteorologically, metaphysically, metabolically -- was afoot.

On this night a quartet of bewildered diners needed food and, more importantly, refuge. The weather had influenced or exacerbated our collective mood to the extent that the day-to-day grind seemed absolutely punishing. We wandered the Haight, dodging the raindrops. We tried to visit the legendary cocktail lounge Aub Zam Zam, to no avail -- closed. Probably just as well. "If he doesn't like the way you're dressed, he'll throw you out," said one of our band, referring to the bar's equally legendary owner/barkeep. "If you order anything but a martini, he'll throw you out. If you try to sit in a booth, he'll throw you out."

Another agreed: "I used to live in an apartment across the street, and we'd watch the people walk in and bet on how long it'd be before they got kicked out."

There are places to go when the old ennui has taken hold and the mood, like the storm, must be weathered. A thick steak and a sour-cream-laden baked potato at Alfred's is suitable on most such occasions; so is a hot fudge sundae at Double Rainbow, a thick slab of pizza from Golden Boy, or a tumbler of bourbon at your favorite quiet saloon. But these are the sort of culinary Band-Aids that pander to our most dysfunctional impulses. What was imperative this night was a sense of calm, of richness, of succor. The weather itself seemed to demand it.

Straggling into the somnolent, Kezar-dominated corridor that is too western for the Haight and too eastern for the Sunset, we found our refuge in the Ganges, an Indian restaurant where an urban American can soothe his battered, tempest-tossed soul. The intimacy and tranquil minimalism of the place are immediately captivating, with a house menu that's not only based in the great subcontinent, home to one of the world's oldest, most enriching cuisines, but is entirely vegetarian and therefore redolent of nature and the Earth and glowing, deep-down salubrity.

As soon as you enter this calming atmosphere you know you're in the midst of another, extra-urban culture. This is especially true if you opt to dine in the tiny room in back, where shoes are doffed and fundaments are settled upon large, comfortable cushions. (Most of the restaurant features Western-style seating, just in case the sciatica acts up.) Meanwhile, faint sitar music provides an almost subliminal sound design, altars and icons glitter in candlelight, and the aromas of the East inspire languor and quietude. This isn't to say that the food is outstanding. I've been to London and I know what a glorious, sparkling fantasia Indian food can be, especially when you eat it every night for a couple of weeks in a delicious attempt to avoid spotted dick, toad-in-the-hole, and the like. But although the Ganges' offerings are too often generic and rudimentarily presented, enough of them gleam to validate the oasislike ambience.

The service takes some getting used to: It's eccentric, helpful, and impatient at the same time, with the staff intent on doing things in a certain manner. Several fixed-price meals are offered, and a little deviation is a difficult proposition. (Pappadum, raita, dal, saffron rice, vegetable of the day, chapati, and chutneys are available at $11.50; substitute a curry of the day for the vegetable for $12.50; get both the vegetable and a curry plus an appetizer for $14.50; or get everything plus a dessert for $15.50.) We settled into the scheme of things with rich, soothing glasses of mango lassi ($2.25) and mugs of hot chai ($2.25) deemed exceptional by our table's resident chai fanatic: a perfect balance of tea, milk, and honey. Indian beers ($2.50) -- Flying Horse, Taj Mahal, and Kingfisher -- are also available, as are house wines sold by the glass or carafe ($2/12).

Pappadum ($1) is always good -- a big spicy cracker of roasted lentils that prepares your palate for the flavors to come. The contrasts of Indian cuisine are represented in the cool, soothing cucumber-studded yogurt raita ($1) and the selection of subtly spicy chutneys ($1 each) that follow; the bracing mint-cilantro variety is especially good, particularly with the kitchen's crisply deep-fried broccoli pakora appetizer ($3). Another starter, samosa ($1.75), is an unusually light puff pastry filled with subtly piquant vegetables (spinach in this case); a third, a sliced loaf of steamed spinach and peas ($3), is dense and earthy and tastes better than its appearance warrants.

Fragrant bowls of dal ($3) -- thick lentil stew, hearty if a bit bland -- arrived with the entrees: a lush saag paneer ($8) -- spinach and mustard greens with too-few chunks of delicious homemade cheese; a bland asparagus curry blanketed with an overly thick yogurt-garbanzo flour sauce ($8); kanda bateta ($8), an unassuming platter of potatoes, onions, and spices; and Chinese eggplant in a cilantro-garlic sauce that took us by surprise with its mounting, post-consumption temperature ($8). The entrees' generic sameness was offset by two stellar desserts: a crispy carrot halvah redolent of vanilla ($3) and, best of all, kulfi, a deliciously creamy frozen confection intricately flavored with saffron, cardamom, almonds, and pistachios ($3.25).

Afterward we made our way to the Red Vic. It was Peter Sellers' birthday and the movie of the night was The Pink Panther, the original Pink Panther with David Niven and Claudia Cardinale and the Italian Alps and the Henry Mancini score and Sellers running down the hallway firing his revolver and the gorilla in the top hat driving the convertible. We found a pew, settled in, and reveled in life's other great psycho-spiritual restorative. On nights like these you just have to find the proper sanctuary, you know what I mean?

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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