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Polk is a many splendored strasse, with lower lows and higher highs, socioeconomically speaking, than practically any other road in town, with the possible exception of Market Street. Below California, there is still an agreeable crunch of urban grit under your feet, you still see the occasional boy hustler, and the restaurants tend toward the ethnic and cheap — but this neighborhood is the western edge of the Tenderloin, after all.
Above Broadway we are in chi-chi-land, cheek to cheek with some of the town's swellest swells (but what cheeks do I mean?) and gazing upon the menu cards of such redoubts of swankery as La Folie and Le Petit Robert. Is this, then, a bipolar story, a tale of haves and have-nots or -littles, grit and glamour, worlds apart? Have I forgotten the stretch of Polk north of California and south of Broadway, the transition zone? I have not.
It is on this very stretch of street, in fact, that we find Indian Aroma, a nicely middle-class South Asian restaurant in a middle-classy neighborhood in a city whose middle class seems to be disappearing in our drive for third world–style stratification of wealth and status: a handful of chubby-cheeked plutocrats and masses of the disenfranchised. The place is far from a dive, with handsomely set tables, a paint scheme of sponged ochres and umbers, a huge round mirror mounted in one wall like a giant's monocle, a nonperfunctory wine list (including several selections by the glass), and professional table service. On the other hand, it's not particularly pricey (most main dishes are within a tick or two of $10), it's easy to glide into, and there is the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet — at $8.99, not the cheapest buffet of its kind in town, but pretty reasonable all the same and with better-than-average food.
Indian Aroma is a reincarnation of sorts of Scenic India, which, until it closed three years ago owing to loss of lease, was one of the better Indian restaurants on the Valencia Street corridor and held a strategic location near the corner of 16th Street. The new location can't match the old for hipster-central cachet, but it does have its charms, mainly of variety: The Civic Center and Tenderloin are within walking distance, as are the hillier, tonier precincts of Nob and Russian Hills and the human parade a block west, along Van Ness.
There is also the stabilizing presence of owner and head chef Tahir Khan, whose Bangladeshi-influenced cooking features spices ground and blended in-house — hence the Indian aroma, which wafts onto the street and helps drifting pedestrians distinguish between the restaurant and the Christian Science Reading Room next door — halal meats, and for those averse to meat (halal or otherwise), a wide variety of meatless choices.
Khan's kitchen does a decent job with flesh — there is a good lamb curry ($8.95), with cubes of boneless (and reasonably tender) meat in a tomato-based sauce, and a nice, slightly sweet version of shrimp bhuna ($12.95), large prawns sautéed in a stir-fried spice mixture with tomatoes, ginger, and garlic — but really, if the only nonvegetarian items on offer were of chicken, you wouldn't complain. Chicken is possibly the meat most compatible with, even in need of, strong spicing, and the tandoori chicken ($8.95 for a half bird) is marvelous, tangy-tender with an edge of char, while the chicken tikka masala ($10.95) met with the enthusiastic approval of the CTM aficionado, who spent several minutes wiping up the remnant gravy with shreds of cooling naan. Even the plain chicken tikka ($10.95) — chunks of boneless, marinated meat cooked on skewers in the tandoor — met the highest standards of moistness and tastiness despite an absence of sauce.
The vegetable dishes too are solid, if stolid, citizens. Spinach, the bane of many a childhood but a cherished source of antioxidants for adults, appears in two guises: cooked simply with tomatoes and a curry blend (saag bhaji, $5.95) and with chunks of white cheese instead of tomatoes (saag paneer, $6.95). Mutter paneer includes cubes of the same fresh white cheese but replaces the spinach with peas for a touch of sweetness that nicely smooths the edge of the curry sauce, while chana masala ($5.95) lets chickpeas be chickpeas, with gentle spicing that bolsters rather than competes with the beans' naturally nutty flavor.
Many of these dishes turn up at the lunch buffet, along with a mild, though dramatically yellow, mulligatawny soup (a close relative of dal, the famous Indian lentil stew) — the presence of turmeric was strongly suspected — and fabulous pappadum, the wrinkly, crackery disks of flash-fried lentil flour still carrying a slight sheen of oil. Lunch also includes pakora, the fritters of shredded vegetables, though like forensic examiners studying the evidence of an especially baffling murder, we were unable to establish which.
The naan, of course, is splendidly pillowy and warm. At lunch it's free and abundant — so go then if you're hooked — but even at dinner, when you have to pay by the piece, you get a disk the size of a medium pizza for just $1.50. Adherents to a variety-is-the-spice-of-life philosophy might opt instead for the puri ($1.50), a naanlike round of dough that's puffy, golden, and slightly crisp from a turn in the deep fryer rather than the oven; like its distant relation langos (the fried bread of Hungary), it resembles a pizza crust made of pastry. But enough pillow talk. SFBG
Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–11 p.m.
Lunch: Daily, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
1653 Polk, SF
Beer and wine