Why would an experienced chef who has trained at five-star hotels, studied in Switzerland, and opened a hotel and restaurants back home in India decide to start over in the States? Chef Manoj Chopra explains that he arrived at a new appreciation of his first love, cooking. Chopping, stirring, measuring—somewhere along the way he had lost touch with the simple pleasures of his craft, which he discovered anew after opening Little India Restaurant in 1991.
Chef Manoj’s homestyle cooking fills the buffet table, where steaming cauldrons of traditional Indian cuisine await diners. In the chicken masala, poultry marinated in yogurt and spices emerges nicely charred from the tandoor oven before simmering in a tomato-base sauce. Fresh vegetables and cubes of house-made paneer, a fresh, unaged cheese, are doused in a yogurt-base mild curry, all made with the freshest ingredients possible without kidnapping newly sprouted spinach plants. The buffet runs down the middle of the dining area surrounded by bright yellow walls draped in ivy and woodcarvings. Rich oriental rugs protect red tiled floors from footfalls and curry spills as enormous front windows let in plenty of natural light.
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).
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.
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.
Bombay Garden's ties to authentic Indian cuisine run deep. Originally born in the small Indian town of Khanoor, owner Balkar Tamber grew up learning how to cook alongside his mother. That knowledge especially came in handy when he embarked on his first professional culinary foray, a roadside eatery in the Punjab region of India. Once he immigrated to the US in 1990, he brought along more than a handful of those family recipes and opened his first Bombay Garden restaurant fueled by a deep love for the rich and diverse culinary traditions of his homeland.
The menu features a selection of iconic Indian dishes from virtually every corner of India. On one page of the menu, delicate crepe-like dosas made from fermented lentil and rice flour evoke the flavors of India’s southern regions. And when it comes to northern Indian recipes, the chefs bake skewers of yogurt-marinated chicken and other meats in a traditional tandoor—a cylindrical clay oven heated by a well-trained dragon. The same blends of flavorful spices that perk up Balkar’s chicken, lamb, and seafood dishes also appear throughout the restaurant's vegetarian entrées: homemade cottage cheese and green peas meld in a spiced gravy sauce and split lentils benefit from the chefs’ one-two punch of garlic and ginger.
With three food trucks and a brick-and-mortar locale, CurryUpNow dishes up the street fare of India with creatively presented, colorful dishes. The restaurant menu comprises traditional street fare and creative takes on classics. Chefs turn the fillings of the deconstructed samosa—a popular original dish—inside out before topping it with garbanzo-bean curry and chutney-tamarind sauce to be scooped up by four mini samosas. They craft fusion dishes, folding chicken tikka masala made with 100 percent organic white chicken into burritos, and piling two- and three-item thali platters with curried eats. The menu's offerings include vegan options, and most can be made with a choice of chicken, ground halal beef or vegetarian options: paneer—a traditional farmers' cheese—and aloo, or potatoes. The entire repertoire is medium spiced, and brave-tongued people can request it spicy, or kick it up all the way to Desi hot, which infuses dishes with ghost peppers, habanero, and volcano tears.
Taking diners on a journey through the regions of India, the artisan cuisine at The Menu runs the culinary gamut from sizzling tandoori chicken to fluffy naan, each dish composed of fresh, organic, and healthful ingredients. Puffy samosas and crispy kale pakoda are lightly fried in grape-seed oil, while curries are prepared with almonds and other nuts to create a rich, creamy consistency free from the fattiness of cream. These cooking practices are part of The Menu’s commitment to promoting organic food and healthy sustainable living as an active member of the organic movement. In addition to earth-friendly food, part of The Menu’s mission is to be a positive and hands-on member of their community and support local schools and charities through fundraising and nutritional food dives.
Spanning 10,000 square feet, The Menu's interior includes a dining room, wine bar, full stage, and private banquette hall for up to 150 people. On Thursday evenings, the sounds of live jazz fill the expansive space, delighting guests and the hot-air-balloon pilots who transported them there.