Amber India

Gratifyingly spicy and carefully prepared dishes keep SoMa diners coming back for more
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Whatever you think a tony Indian restaurant might look like, you're probably not picturing Amber India. On the other hand, if you're wondering what a tony Indian restaurant smells like, you probably already know: it smells like the regular kind, which is to say, it smells of curry. Amber India smells bewitchingly of curry while looking like, in its elegant stackedness, Postrio.

You step inside from street level — or lane level, since the restaurant lies along a pedestrian plaza, Yerba Buena Lane — and find yourself at the host's podium, on a small platform, while the restaurant opens out below you like an enchanted, hidden valley. Amber India doesn't quite have Postrio's Gone with the Wind staircase or exhibition kitchen, but it does have gorgeous flooring (large tiles of what looks like polished sandstone); impressive columns; a partly coffered ceiling; square leaves of gilded, pressed tin tethered to some of the light fixtures; and atmospheric golden lighting in general. Given the hardness of the flooring material and the scale of the restaurant (which can accommodate nearly 200 people), noise is notably under control.

Amber India opened in the city just this past June, in a neighborhood that has seen drastic changes in recent years. (The restaurant's siblings, scattered across the Peninsula and South Bay, have been a presence in the Bay Area for nearly 15 years.) For one thing, there is now an actual neighborhood, with people living just steps away — mostly overhead, in the condominiums above the Four Seasons Hotel, and in the many other residential buildings that have sprung up in SoMa. The restaurant is also convenient to shoppers, museum-goers (the new Jewish Museum is just across the walkway, while the Yerba Buena Center and Museum of Modern Art are barely more than one block distant), and out-of-towners.

Why would they come to Amber India, apart from its convenience and style? One reason might be that the food emerging from the kitchen is gratifyingly spicy. We were particularly exhilarated by the dal Amber ($12.95), a shallow dish of black lentils swimming in a thick, rust-colored sauce the menu described as consisting of "cream, tomatoes, and spices." "Spices," in the world of Indian restaurants, is a come-hither word that tells you practically nothing; it doesn't have to mean "spicy" — i.e. hot — but it does here. Dal is often soupy and can be indifferently prepared in other restaurants, but Amber India's version had a velvet smoothness that left an erotic tingle on the lips.

If you want the standards, many of them are here. But the menu offers a wide array of imaginative cooking, including the use of unorthodox ingredients. Duck? How about duck tikka kebab ($10.95), chunks of boneless breast meat marinated in spicy yogurt, pan-seared on skewers, and served with an eerily addictive dill-caper sauce the color and consistency of homemade mayonnaise? The meat was beautifully tender and didn't even need the sauce, but once the meat was gone, we kept dipping out spoons into it as if it were a separate dish.

Thanks to saganaki and The Simpsons, many of us are familiar with fried cheese, but grilled cheese — as in actual chunks of cheese, not packaged in a sandwich — is another matter. Amber offers it as paneer tikka lal mirch ($15.95), elongated cubes of mild white cheese, marinated and grilled. If you've eaten grilled tofu, you'll have a good sense of the look and feel of this dish, although the cheese has more tang.

As a boy, I was unimpressed by the cans of spinach devoured by Popeye the Sailor Man: I liked Popeye, but spinach was repulsive, period, new paragraph. Then, in early adulthood, I discovered saag paneer, an exotic version of creamed spinach punctuated with chunks of white cheese.

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