Gratifyingly spicy and carefully prepared dishes keep SoMa diners coming back for more
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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. Every Indian restaurant I've been to except, now, Amber offers an interpretation of this standard. Amber's spinach dish is called teen saag ($14.95); it consists of spinach (plus some dill and mustard greens) wilted with cumin and garlic and, for counterpoint, mushroom caps and spears of baby corn instead of cheese chunks.
I would count that dish as vegan, despite a small suspicion that cream was involved. Indian cooking is expansively vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, but if you are a sometime or intermittent vegetarian, or a pesco-vegetarian or even just some kind of poser Amber doesn't disappoint. Our tongues were left pleasurably smoldering by the "thecha" shrimp salad ($9.95), a clutch of small shrimp marinated with garlic and chilis, sautéed, and nested in mixed baby field greens. The masterstroke: a vinaigrette scented with lemon verbena, an herb that, like lemongrass, is lemony in a way distinct from plain lemons.
It's possible that people eat in Indian restaurants without having naan, but I have never seen such a display. Amber isn't the place to experiment with the naanless life, either; its flatbreads are wonderful exercises in blistered tenderness, and the signature Amber rounds ($3.95) come with a variety of toppings, including a fragrant and nippy blend of chili and thyme.
On the other hand ... $3.95 for a disk of bread sprinkled with a few herbs isn't exactly the steal of the century. Amber's prices are, I would guess, about 50 percent higher than the Indian-restaurant average in the farther reaches of the city. So you pay a city-center premium that reflects convenience and the affluence of the surroundings. But you won't find better Indian food, and in that sense the premium, although steep as a percentage, is modest as a fact.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 510 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 510:30 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.; Sat.Sun., noon3 p.m.
25 Yerba Buena Lane, SF