California's Indian cuisine is fresh and inventive.
When Ashwani Dhawan moved from India to California, he didn’t miss the seasons. He missed the seasonings. On the rare occasions that he came across dishes from his native country, they were forlorn, stale adaptations of childhood favorites.
"Here we were in California, home of everything local and seasonal," he says. "There was so much potential that wasn’t being tapped."
Fast-forward 26 years. Dhawan, a former software engineer, now finds himself at the center of a boom. As co-owner of Palo Alto’s swank Mantra (www.mantrapaloalto.com), Dhawan presides over a restaurant that offers a California take on Indian traditions, serving such dishes as Dover sole with peppermint and mango, and chicken roulade with chile peaches. It’s the old world of curries and kebabs refashioned in the spirit of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.
And Mantra isn’t alone.You can find such convention-breaking food in San Francisco at Crossing the Bar, where chef Bidisha Chowdhury accents her French-inspired cooking with Indian spices in beef samosas with burgundy demi-glace and cumin-dusted filet mignon.
At Dosa, also in San Francisco (www.dosasf.com), diners can order the restaurant’s namesake lentil crepes stuffed with traditional potato filling—or with cheddar cheese. On the Peninsula at Junnoon (www.junnoon.com), executive chef Kirti Pant, who cooked at London’s upscale Cinnamon Club, pan sears duck breast lightly coated with tamarind, peanuts, and sesame seeds. He stuffs naan, the classic Indian bread, with mild goat cheese and green chiles.
Some restaurateurs attribute the trend to the region’s booming Indian population and the emergence of India as a global economic power. Others point to such pioneering Indian restaurants as Ajanta in Berkeley (www.ajantaberkeley.com), among the region’s earliest to offer a sophisticated wine list and sustainably caught seafood. This is where you go for organic greens and Niman Ranch lamb biryani.
"The Bay Area is a very cosmopolitan place, and India has become that too," Dhawan says. "Eventually, Indian restaurants in California were going to discover the bounty of ingredients here. And diners were going to dis-cover that there’s a lot more to Indian food than what they might have been eating all these years."
Photography by Susan Seubert
This article was first published in March 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.