At Little India Restaurant, authenticity permeates the food, art, and music. Owned by the Baidwan and Malhotra families and staffed with northern India–trained chefs, the restaurant is a multiyear winner of numerous prizes, including CityVoter's award for Best Indian cuisine. Chefs grill meats over mesquite charcoal in the tandoori oven, and season curries with onion, garlic, and ginger. Handcrafted mint-cilantro and tamarind chutneys create opportunities for 11 types of bread to sneak toward unsuspecting droplets of spice-filled sauce, whereas potatoes soften the heat quotient of fiery vindaloos. Within the dining room, calming sitar music fills the air and larger-than-life paintings of food-based revelry decorate the walls and come to life at tables.
Mantra's menu infuses modern Indian cuisine with fresh California influences and a bounty of vegetarian fare, resulting in a cast of familiar favorites alongside newfangled flavors. Start with a small plate of scallops marinated in peppercorn and fennel ($12), the vegetarian grape-leaf-wrapped goat cheese ($8), or, for a bright beginning, the cinnamon-stick lamb "lollipops" ($10). Classics such as the chicken tikka masala ($17) take their esteemed place among original entree creations including the chili-marinated pan-roasted sablefish ($22), served over tomato-basil biryani, asparagus, and mozzarella and drizzled with a cardamom and peanut-infused red-curry sauce, or the Rajasthani duck ($22), rubbed with red chili and served with braised Napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. The cinnamon-and-clove-marinated lamb chops "Vinhaleaux" ($22) reforms renegade shepherds, while the paneer "ravioli" ($19), which folds cauliflower, paneer, and cumin into a puff-pastry envelope, pleases vegetarians.
From the blossoming petals of Indian champa flowers comes an entire external hard-drive of cooking secrets that pack concentrated flavor and ebullient grace into modern Indian dishes. Gayot calls Junnoon one of San Francisco's 10 best Indian restaurants for its commitment to a dining experience surrounded by the warmly elegant ambience of terra-cotta walls, subtle ornamentations, and zero polterghosts. Junnoon's full menu of savory dishes invites soupspoons to bowls of cauliflower and ginger soup ($6) while diners clutch Darjeeling steamed wontons to their hearts before tearing open the pillowy dumplings of pork, green chilies, and garlic chili chutney ($8). Junnoon presents a medley of small-plate meals, featuring minty lamb kebab rolls ($10) alongside hearty entrees like Tamil chicken (sautéed with coconut, onions, curry leaves, coriander, and turmeric, $19) and sesame-crusted tofu with kokum sauce ($15).
The chefs at Tava Indian Kitchen know that traditional South Asian cuisine is built upon the artful weaving of complex flavors. At Tava, they invite each of their customers to try their hand at making their own edible masterpiece. Guests customize their meals from start to finish as they shuffle through each step of the ordering process. The kitchen crew can roll tandoori-marinated chicken or slow-roasted grass-fed lamb into a whole-wheat burroti—Tava’s answer to the Mexican burrito and American pillowcases—or toss paneer, made from Indian farmers’ cheese and vegetables, into a salad or rice bowl. Next, feasters choose their sauce; simmering with tomatoes and Indian spices, tikka is light and creamy, while daal, made from lentils, has a more savory finish. Five types of chutney, ranging from mild to “lava” hot, add a spicy kick, easily extinguished by a glass of chai tea or mango lassi.