Playing with dals
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Since the crash of Tallula a few years ago, the Department of Innovative Indian Food has undergone some slight shrinkage. True, the overall standard of Indian cooking in the city has continued to rise, and we've been treated to spots that emphasize regional Indian cuisine, such as Dosa. But where oh where is the restaurant that will cook a well-spiced duck in the tandoor, then serve the meat in slices as part of a salad with arugula and bing cherries? Tallula was brilliant at this sort of cross-cultural flourish, and I was hopeful it would be the first of its profuse kind.
Perhaps, despite its too-short life, it was. The second of its kind could be Roti, in West Portal a much better-looking restaurant than Tallula, though shyer about proclaiming its more distinctive dishes. (There is a sibling restaurant in Burlingame.) You could feast quite happily at Roti on the subcontinental foods that have become familiar and perhaps even beloved in certain quarters of blue-state America: tandoori chicken, lamb vindaloo, palak paneer, chana masala. But you might suspect you were missing something, your first clue being Roti's appearance.
The phrase the restaurant applies to itself is "Indian bistro," and this means, first, no stainless-steel steam tables pushed against the back wall for all-you-can-eat buffets. It also means a Manhattanish look of glossy surfaces and striking lamps and light fixtures arrayed behind a barrel façade of window panes that arc inward toward the door. The effect is a little like that of the original Slanted Door, though with a curve instead of a slant. Certainly the intent of the two places seems similar: to do justice to an ancient cuisine while reconciling it with the reality of modern California.
Hence Roti's splendid tandoori duck salad ($12), with meat dense, moist, and tender, almost like confit. Tallula's menu was filled with these sorts of combinations; at Roti, there is a stronger sense of restraint regarding the ecstasies of Californication, along with heightened attention to some traditional Indian dishes that are less well-known in this country. If you think Indian cooks only use lentils to make dal, for instance, you'll be pleasantly surprised by dal ki mathri ($8), a set of fritters made of several varieties of legumes, including chickpeas. The fritters could have been warmer (they seemed to toughen with cooling) but were complex in flavor and texture. Also, they were endearing in appearance little golden footballs that could have been part of a Pop Warner awards presentation.
Calamari rings ($8) were given the "Bombay" treatment: a heavy dusting of curry-scented chickpea flour, then a turn in the deep-fryer for some golden crunch. The rings were presented with little dishes of chutney, tamarind and mint, but they were tasty enough to be eaten straight up. They were also tender, which suggested skillful handling, since calamari easily turns rubbery with overcooking. One of the blights of Indian restaurants is that so many of the appetizers and starters are deep-fried, and Roti's are no exception. But if you must go deep-fried, calamari is at least somewhat less usual than pakoras or samosas.
Chicken tikka boneless breast meat turns up in a number of preparations. Among these are the lovable old warhorse, chicken tikka masala ($14), cubes of meat awash in a mild, creamy sauce; and a lunchtime salad ($12) in which the breast meat is rolled up, roulade-style, roasted, and served over mixed greens with naan. Considering the dryness of roasting and the paucity of fat on boneless, skinless, chicken breast meat, the chicken tikka here was remarkably juicy a credit, maybe, to some ingenious marinade.
Lamb vindaloo ($15) arrived with the chicken tikka masala and in some ways resembled it: cubes of meat in a rich-looking sauce. But vindaloo is generally hotter and sharper than its sibling, and here it was markedly gingery, too. (Vindaloo comes from Goa, once a Portuguese colony, and, as the name implies, wine was a long-ago ingredient. In these postcolonial days, some kind of mild vinegar is generally used.)
As so often is the case in Indian restaurants, vegetarian offerings are strong and varied enough to banish any vagrant yearnings for meat. The only one of these dishes we found wanting was, surprisingly, the palak paneer ($11), lightly spiced spinach cooked with chunks of cheese. The spicing here consisted mostly of nutmeg, which really didn't have the wattage to compete with chana masala ($9), chickpeas cooked in a spicy tomato-curry sauce. Somewhere between these two extremes lay the mattar kurchan ($10 at lunch, with a disk of poori), cubes of cheese cooked with green peas in a moderately athletic tomato sauce. The sauced cheese would have been excellent spooned over the poori to make a kind of pizza, but I didn't think of that in time. And it would have been tricky to eat.
How about dessert after all that? We stuck to the ice creams and were well satisfied: two scoops of peach-colored lucuma ($5) and a plate of kulfi ($6), flavored with saffron, cardamom, pistachio, and rosewater, shaped into a sausage, frozen, and sliced like a banana.
As we were getting up to leave, the disputatious person seated to my right said, "It's good, but not as good as Metro Kathmandu." I felt obliged politely! to dispute this diss. Roti is quite as good in its way as Metro Kathmandu, and that's saying something. (It's also indisputably better-looking, and that's saying something else.) The death of Tallula was a real loss but, as Roti proves, not an unredeemed one.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 510:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 511 p.m.
Lunch: Tues.Sat., 11:30 a.m.2 p.m.
53 West Portal, SF
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