810 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
My job often takes me to the Gaslamp, that hotbed of perpetual restaurant openings, and when I spot a newbie, I usually glance at the menu before strolling on. At Gourmet India, a small, simple-looking eatery at the base of Horton Plaza, the glance became a long, hungry gaze. Here was something different from the norm.
Most Indian restaurants in San Diego share near-identical pan-regional menus, varying only in whether the chicken tikka masala is listed before or after the lamb vindaloo. At times I've even suspected that it's all cooked in one central Indian food factory and sent through underground pipes (like water lines) to bubble out directly into the chafing dishes at Indian lunch buffets all over the county.
Gourmet India, in contrast -- because it serves regional delicacies -- actually has a distinctive identity. Chef-owner Salwinder Khinda and partner Ramjit Kaur are from Punjab (northern India), home of the tandoor, but Salwinder has picked up other styles of cooking in his 25 years as a chef. He learned his craft in his family's Indian restaurants in L.A. Although the menu at Gourmet India covers the typical range of regions, from Punjab to Goa to Chennai (that's Madras to us Anglophones), several of Salwinder's specialties are from Moombai (Bombay in Anglo-speak).
It's a long menu, too, so I gathered a large posse to sample it -- Sam, Cheryl, Rebecca, and John, all of whom have spent time either in India or eating in London's "Paki" restaurants. The table for six was barely ample enough to hold plates for the five of us, but Indian music and a tranquil atmosphere put us in good spirits. From our table we could see a corner of the kitchen and the handsome, bearded chef at work.
Dinner began with a positive omen -- a serving of pappadums (crisp wafer-breads) with a spicy tomato chutney. We began with Sev Puri -- crisp, thin wheat wafers topped with a ravishing mixture of onions, potatoes, green chili chutney, and tamarind chutney, sprinkled with crushed sev -- crisp, crushed chickpea noodles. Hot, sweet, sour, and earthy all at once, this was an appetizer to rouse an appetite. The menu also includes Bhel Puri ("India's most popular railway snack"), which should be worth a try, too.
Uttapam, says the menu, is "a popular griddle cake from Bombay." I always thought it was a pancake from Bangalore, but this version proved different from the frittata-like southern rendition. We received four disks resembling delicate mini-pizzas, with a dough made from Cream of Wheat cereal. They were topped with fresh tomatoes, onions, green chili, and cilantro. Better yet, they were served with a coconut chutney of yogurt loaded with unsweetened coconut shreds.
Shrimp Chat was equally unusual but less exciting -- a bland pile of potato cubes, puffed rice cereal, sev, and onions with a few marinated, overcooked shrimp. We couldn't taste the three chutneys the menu promised, although the onion gave it a sweet tang. Masala Dosa (a crisp south Indian crêpe wrapped around vegetable stuffing) was disappointing. Although the pancake was thin and crisp, the filling was all potato, seasoned with turmeric and mustard seeds. It needed something to lighten it -- perhaps additional vegetables, typical of the dosa fillings of Madras. It came with a small bowl of savory sambal, lentil soup. Onion Bhaji (fritters) also suffered from heaviness.
Among the tandoor-cooked breads, the Peshawari Naan was spectacular -- sweet soft bread rounds stuffed with cashews, raisins, and paneer (a fresh house-made cheese with a texture resembling fine-grained goat cheese, but without the goaty flavor). Alas, it spoiled us for the regular naan and garlic naan -- they seemed like stalwarts of the math club while the Peshawari was the hottest hottie on the cheerleading squad.
Tandoori chicken wings are a recent addition to the appetizer menu. They were tender and savory, served over tandoor-roasted onions and carrots, sweet from the natural caramels released at high heat. This dish included a zesty yogurt-based green-chili chutney dip. It's a perfect solution for anyone wondering whether to order a tandoori entrée.
Encountering an appropriate and affordable wine list, we chose a fruity Pinot Gris to accompany our appetizers. There's also a Gewürztraminer, always a good choice with spicy cooking. But even as a table of wine-lovers, we agreed that beer is the optimal choice to go with Indian entrées. We tried two obscure labels. Yeti, from Sikkim, was one. The name hints of "the land of sky-blue waters," although Himalayan water is not much purer than Indian. (Does a lama poop in the woods? Yes, by the edge of the river that downstream villages draw on for drinking water.) Yeti was a good choice for wine-lovers -- light and crisp. Himalaya was more of a brew-lovers' brew, with a bitter edge. We didn't try Karma beer. It was tempting, but who would dare test karma?
We returned to the tandoor for one of our entrées, the rarely seen Mirchi Tikka, described on the menu as "Hot and Spicy!" It consisted of boneless chicken pieces in a marinade of spices, cayenne, cilantro, and lime juice and tasted light and bright. I've come to fear tandoori chicken, so often is it overcooked dry. Here, it was not just flavorful but also moist -- and as spicy as advertised.
Madrasi fish curry was splendid. I neither knew nor cared what species of white fish it was -- the rich, coral-colored coconut-milk sauce was the point of the dish. My only disappointment was that we'd asked the waiter to "make the spicy dishes spicy," and this one could easily have been more piquant, in keeping with its deep-south origins. (With that coconutty sauce, it actually tasted more like the food I ate in Kerala, at the tip of India, than the cuisine of Madras.)
Bombay Chicken is one of the house specialties. The chicken is poached with seasonings, then sautéed with dry green mango powder (amchar), coriander, and cayenne. The flavor struck me as homey, though my mother certainly never cooked anything like it. "It's quite salty," Rebecca pointed out. "You're right," I said, "but then most restaurant food is so oversalted I barely notice anymore -- I just go home and swig milk straight from the bottle like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause."
To sample the vegetarian curries, we ordered a thali combination -- two veggies, dal (lentils), basmati rice, raita (yogurt-cucumber relish), kachumber (cuke and onion salsa) and naan bread. For the veggies I chose bengan bhartha (puréed tandoor-cooked eggplant) and shahi paneer (a Punjabi royal dish of firm cubes of fresh cheese, nuts, and raisins in light tomato cream sauce). They were all acceptable, but not special. Although Salwinder is a vegetarian himself, he seems more inspired and painstaking with the animal proteins.
We missed out on one house specialty -- we ordered it, but it never arrived: a popular Bombay dish called a "Frankie," which has chicken or lamb masala wrapped in a thin housemade "tortilla," like a burrito. I suspect it's Moombai's rendition of the beloved, griddle-cooked and curry-stuffed roti wraps of Trinidad and Jamaica -- brought from the East Indies to the West Indies by Indian immigrants. At the end of the meal, I asked the waiter where our Frankie had gone. He looked abashed, and not only did he make sure we weren't billed for it, he insisted on treating us to a dessert of gulab jamun ("Indian donuts," he called them) -- small dough-balls, fried and then simmered in sweet syrup scented with rosewater. I thought I couldn't eat another morsel but couldn't resist these sweets served warm.
We'd eaten royally on a prosperous peasant's budget. "This was a great meal," said Cheryl. "But what made it so good was ordering the out-of-the-ordinary things, the regional dishes." "I just hope," said Rebecca, "that as time passes, they don't start editing down the menu to the standard, popular stuff, like so many restaurants do -- especially in the Gaslamp, where there are conventioneers to feed. The best dishes here are the ones you don't see on other Indian menus -- but Americans would be less likely to order them, just because they aren't familiar. Without those, the restaurant would still be good, but it wouldn't be special."