February 12, 2003




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Cheap Eats
by Dan Leone

The ascent of naan

I HAVE OFTEN lamented the fact that once I review a restaurant I can't review it again. And again and again, in some cases. Things change. And even if they don't, even if everything about a place stays exactly more or less the same, how are you going to know so if I don't keep telling you. Gravy's fried oysters are still the best fried oysters ever. This week Gravy's fried oysters are still the best. This week, still the best.

In a perfect world, it would be my job to make sure of it. Two of my best talents are loyalty and focus. And another one is eating fried oysters at Gravy's – but I haven't been there for months! Thus the lamentations.

Imperfect worldliness aside, last night something good happened. Me and my friend Moonpie, the visiting Pittsburgh poet, were walking around O'Farrell and Jones and vicinity in search of an Indian/Pakistani restaurant I hadn't already written about. There was Pakwan, there was Naan and Curry, there was – best of all – Shalimar. There were other Indian restaurants that weren't open on account of Monday.

And then there was one I'd never noticed before called Shalimar Garden. It's tucked in behind and/or under a Moroccan restaurant on O'Farrell, around the corner and down the block (almost all the way to Taylor) from Shalimar.

I didn't know if Shalimar Shalimar and Shalimar Garden were related to one another in any way, and I didn't care. It was either a brand new discovery or a great excuse to rereview my favorite Indian restaurant. Win, win.

Turns out it is the same owner, and the same food at slightly pricier prices, so I'll start out with a discussion of the atmosphere, because that's what you're paying for.

Shalimar, as you know, is fast food Indian food. It's a dive, and dives, as you know, are good. From the street, Shalimar Garden looks like it's going to be even divier. Well, you can't even see it, for one thing. It's below street level, on a pretty lowly street of a pretty lowly neighborhood. But you go down the stairs and the lowliness ends right there, at an oddly angled, oddly ornate door.

Things aren't particularly fancy-pants on the other side of that door. You're underground, as I said, so there aren't any windows (thus the name: Shalimar Garden); but there are big giant paintings and a couple of colorful dioramas occupied by royally decked-out figurines, just hanging out, smelling the smells and wishing they could eat. There are more impressive doorways, cloth tablecloths (mint-yogurt green and cranberry red), cloth napkins, candles, very friendly service, and – worst of all – a tableful of yuppies who plopped down at the table next to ours and ruined our appetites loudly yuppificating over their "properties" in Houston, the "movement" of said properties, "amenities," Enron, and so on and on, oh gag gag gag. I'll give you an exact quote, but not until after we eat, because I don't want to ruin your appetites too.

The food's great. That's the good news. And it's not outrageously expensive; in fact it's downright cheap at lunchtime. But we were there for dinner. We paid $7.95 for bhuna gosht, and $5.95 for that spinach stuff with cubes of cheese in it. Not bad. Where they get you is the rice: $3 for a plate of rice. It's basmati rice, and it's good and colorful and all. But come on, it's rice!

Naan, the clay oven-baked flat bread that has become my favorite part of Indian/Pakistani food, is only a buck a piece, so I'd recommend forgoing the rice in favor of three pieces of naan.

You've got to read this menu, speaking of poetry. The secret behind naan, apparently, is that it is baked in a clay oven "at a special temperature." A "curry," I learned, is "a wondrous admixture of exotic spices." Shalimar's curries, the menu boasts, "are evocative of spring and mild as May."

Hot damn, in other words.

The bhuna gosht was great. "Relished by Punjabi stalwart soldiers" (which is what made me order it), it's big bony pieces of lamb simmered in a buttery, brothy, tomatoey curry sauce. The spinach stuff was nothing special, according to Moonpie. The naan, in all seriousness and especially dipped into the bhuna gosht juice, was perfect – almost as if it had been cooked at not just any old temperature, but a special one.

"It's a really nice property," the yupfuck said, ruining everything. "I'd love to keep it, but I don't have the carrying capability."

Shalimar Garden. 417 O'Farrell (at Taylor), S.F. (415) 447-4041. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Fri., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sat., 1-11 p.m.; Sun., 1-9:30 p.m. Takeout available. No alcohol. Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Wheelchair accessible.

Dan Leone is the author of Eat This, San Francisco (Sasquatch Books), a collection of Cheap Eats restaurant reviews, and The Meaning of Lunch (Mammoth Books).