A budding new Indian restaurateur recently remarked to me that the establishment he most hopes to compete with is Amber India.
It’s easy to understand why.
The Indian restaurant group, which started more than 13 years ago with its first Amber India restaurant in Mountain View, practically pioneered the art of modern Indian cuisine in the Bay Area.
Weeks ago, it opened its fifth restaurant, Amber Dhara in downtown Palo Alto, in the former location of Junnoon, another modern Indian eatery. If that weren’t enough, you can look for a second Amber Dhara to open in San Francisco’s Mission District in January.
The look of the Palo Alto place hasn’t changed much. Heavy silk drapes and peach banquettes cocooned in dark wood still lend a glam, exotic ambience.
Last weekend, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant to try some of the new dishes. Amber Dhara, explains Corporate Executive Chef Vittal Shetty, emphasizes small plates and little-seen regional Indian specialties. Think roti ($3.75) — but made with nine grains to give it a deeper, heartier flavor; and “Duck Two Ways” ($20) with a spice confit duck leg plus a seared breast in orange curry. There’s also a range of specialty cocktails, including the “Ginger Sutra” with fresh ginger, vodka and jaggery, which I couldn’t resist.
We started with the moong lentil salad ($7) — a vibrant mix of full-throttle crunch from pomegranate seeds and crushed peanuts, as well as sweet Anjou pear slices. A zingy key lime vinaigrette tied it all together.
A sampler of chutneys were brought out (mint, tamarind and an addicting creamy peanut one with bits of the crunchy nut incorporated into yogurt) with the warm nine-grain roti. You need to restrain yourself lest you inhale every last piece of soft, charred bread.
Chef Shetty brought out a sampler plate of appetizers that held a jaipur mirchi, a sweet pepper stuffed with paneer and spinach, then fried till golden like an Indian chile relleno; and a venison kebab with a cranberry chutney that tasted of Thanksgiving and a dollop of wonderful avocado pine-nut dip not unlike guacamole.
Next, a very interesting dish of butternut squash ($13). Usually, this hard winter squash is mashed or roasted in chunks. Here, it was roasted, but cut into a fine dice with sweet, crunchy fresh coconut strands, curry leaves and the earthy, bite of mustard seeds. Amber Dhara notes vegan dishes on its menu. This is one of them and it’s sure to win over any diner — vegan or not.
Cobia ($20) was seared in the tandoor oven to give its moist flesh a tinge of smokiness. Al dente black chickpeas in a yam sauce completed the plate.
With it came sides of Kerala red rice ($3.25) and paneer dumplings in a rich, thick sauce.
That was followed by a sampler of Assasmese Shrimp “Tenga” ($23) topped with crispy lotus root chips and a sauce redolent of tamarind, lime leaf, bamboo shoot and galangal. Also on the plate was a taste of garlic and chili lamb rack ($24) with a bed of rice and lentils cooked down until almost the texture of mashed potatoes, then flavored with goat cheese and cilantro. The lamb had been cooked in the tandoor, as well. It was tender to be sure. But perhaps too tender, as the scorching heat of the tandoor had left the meat without any toothsomeness and almost mushy instead.
Alongside was a basket of manchego cheese, onion and piquillo pepper kulcha ($4), which was like a reinvented quesadilla.
For dessert, each $7, there was a fluffy, mousse-like masala chai creme brulee that had the appropriate torched sugar top to break through; and a wonderful shortbread-like tart filled with chocolate-coffee ganache and crowned with a scoop of cardamom ice cream.
It may be only a few weeks since it opened, but Amber Dhara is up and running strongly already. But then, who would expect anything less from a restaurant group that clearly knows what it’s doing.