Church of the holy tandoor
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Two cheers, then, for Google, which recently rerouted its Noe Valley shuttle-bus lines so as to cause less air pollution and other distress in the heart of a neighborhood that has become, in effect, Googleberry RFD, the nesting habitat for those countless Google employees who spend their working days in the suburban wilds of the Peninsula. The child is father to the man, and the city is now the suburb, a dangling appendage to industry but no longer itself industrial. Just recreational.
During the last dot-com boom, in the late 1990s, a rise in both quality and quantity was noted in Bay Area restaurants serving Indian food. Software engineers and other tech types of Indian heritage were drawn here for work, and they expected and got an improvement in Indian restaurants, which previously were scarce and abysmal. The renaissance, or naissance, first took hold in the South Bay, whose environs were and are dotted with gigantic tech installations (including Google's, in Mountain View), but now that everyone has moved to the city, enabled by shuttle buses with wi-fi and probably whirlpools, the city is getting better Indian restaurants too. Two more cheers.
Before the recent opening of Clay Oven, Noe Valley had no Indian restaurants at all, not a one, despite the neighborhood's profound connection to Silicon Valley. An Indian restaurant in Noe Valley was arguably overdue and not just because of software engineers and other Googloids either, but also because many of the rest of us marginal-Luddite types happen to like Indian food and its hit parade of spices. Of course, Dosa and Aslam's Rasoi, each within a few steps of Valencia and 22nd streets, aren't exactly light-years from Noe Valley, but there is something cozier about Clay Oven's setting on outer Church, amid a quieter but flourishing restaurant row and Muni's J trains rumbling past at odd intervals: a real convenience for those lucky enough to catch one.
If you believe addresses are portents, then you might think Clay Oven's prospects are no better than mixed. The space was occupied most recently by a California-style bistro that never quite caught on, and before that by a Chinese restaurant that never quite caught on, and before that by a Burmese-inflected spot whose owners kept an old sofa and a dead television at the back of the dingy dining room. The Burmese food was pretty good, but eating there was like having dinner in a U-Store warehouse.
All of that dimness and debris has been cleared away. The old TV and sofa are long gone, and the kitchen has been separated from the stylishly low-key dining room by a new wall. Even the building's faded facade has been remade; it's now clad in red granite. If you didn't know what used to be here, you would never guess.
The food is what many of us would probably consider standard-issue in Indian restaurants these days, but it's carefully prepared and intensely flavorful. (Clay Oven, not coincidentally, has a number of older siblings around the city, including India Clay Oven in the Richmond, as well as a namesake Clay Oven in San Mateo.) The only real disappointments for me were the pappadum ($1), the crinkly lentil wafers, which were cold and therefore a little flat, and the palak pakora ($3.50), fritters of spinach in a batter of chickpea flour also cold, and apparently fried (well ahead of time) in rancid oil.
Other than that: satisfaction. How about tandoori chicken, which is so cliché that it transcends cliché? You would expect a place called Clay Oven to have a pretty good version, since a tandoor is a clay oven, and Clay Oven's version ($9.95 for a half bird) is exemplary, very tender and juicy, with the requisite reddish pink color (from the seasoned yogurt marinade), presented on a sizzling iron platter with slivers of onion and quartered lemons.
But we were pleased too to find tandoori chicken meat turning up in a dish called chicken makhai ($10.95): chunks of boneless flesh swimming in a voluptuous, spicy sauce very similar to that of chicken tikka masala. The restaurant offers this latter preparation too ($11.95), the only difference being ... well, we couldn't really detect any difference. If you're concerned about the heat factor, incidentally, you needn't worry, since the kitchen will tune the food's fieriness to your specification.
Vegetarian dishes, as is typical at South Asian restaurants, are more than sufficient if you are a shunner of flesh. Saag paneer ($8.95) struck us as unusually and agreeably creamy, with a heavy allotment of white cheese, while chana masala ($7.95) chickpeas cooked in a spicy gravy was rich in said gravy, which helped allay any sense of dryness. (Chickpeas can be chalky.) Rice, of course, is offered to help capture the sauces of all of these dishes, but the breads work just as nicely, from a simple, well-blistered naan ($1.95) to a whole-wheat chapati ($1.50) glistening with oil.
Some of the humblest of dishes were among the most memorable. A cucumber salad ($2.75) turned out not to be a yogurty raita (though raita is available) but instead a heap of peeled coins sprinkled with salt and curry powder. And mulligatawny soup ($3.50), a hearty combination of shredded chicken and rice, was Soup Naziworthy, though served in a dainty little bowl. Ordinarily I might have hoped for a slightly bigger serving, but the world is not ordinary in the wake of Thanksgiving. So: two cheers yet again for little bowls of soup, and a dessert menu (of such usual suspects as rice pudding and saffron ice cream) from which one can abstain with a clear conscience. *
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.3 p.m. Dinner: daily, 410 p.m.
1689 Church, SF
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