In times like these, our need for "comfort food," a phrase I've seen too often lately, needn't limit us to mashed potatoes and ice cream.
As 21st-century Californians, our comfort foods are also pho, menudo, and juk. And dal and rice. On a series of misty fall evenings this past month, I traveled over to Alameda to eat familiar, comfortable Indian food at Sahib, a friendly little neighborhood restaurant.
A year ago, Lalit and Chanderkala Sharma opened up Sahib, one of two Indian restaurants on the island. According to Ms. Sharma, who is the head cook, the Sharmas come originally from New Delhi. Her brother and parents also live in Alameda, and the family decided to start a restaurant -- their first -- that would specialize in North Indian cuisine.
The space looks like an Indian restaurant perched atop the ruins of an early-'60s dinner spot for Alameda's Rat Pack. From the entrance, one can case the joint through a bank of tiled, beveled mirrors that runs around the entire room at eye level. Sky-blue paint covers the upper half of the walls, and the mirrors are topped by interspersed posters of Indian gods and pretty ladies (my favorite: a glistening starchild, labeled "Feelings," painted by the Bombay Frederick Nagel). A stone fireplace that Dean Martin should be leaning against sits in the back half of the room, and the restaurant is brightly lit by a collection of crystal chandeliers.
On my first visit, two of us started off with an appetizer sampler plate, three entrées, rice, and some bread. Everything was inexpensive enough that we felt like we could order a little extra. The waiter raised his eyebrows at our litany of dishes but took everything down. Our eyes widened as the vegetarian appetizer platter approached, big enough to feed a table of four pro wrestlers.
"I think we ordered too much food," we said to our food runner. She smiled indulgently and replied, "You did." Then she offered to cancel one of the entrées we had ordered.
That honesty, especially on a slow night where we were one of three or four tables in the place, won her major points. So did the servers' genuine friendliness and their ability to keep a good balance between attentiveness and privacy. For example, seeing that my guest and I were chatting animatedly about everything but the menu, the server didn't pester us to order; he came around later, though, to check on us and fill water glasses at just the right times. Perhaps those mirrors make his job easier.
The gargantuan veggie appetizer platter contained two large samosas and pakora'd vegetables, plus a thin, crispy pepper pappadum. The first, flaky pastry pyramids packed with turmeric-colored mashed potatoes and peas, could have been more assertively spiced. The potato and cauliflower pakora -- almost a whole head's worth -- were coated in a thick, savory chickpea-flour batter. We dipped everything in three relishes: fiery red pickled pepper puree, sweet-tart tamarind chutney, and a sharp cilantro-chili-yogurt sauce. If those aren't enough for dipping and flavoring, diners can also get side orders of a thin, sour raita and a sugary mango chutney.
The entrées span the range of familiar Northern Indian restaurant cuisine. If you've heard of it, you'll find it here, from tandoor-roasted meats to lamb vindaloo, chicken biryani, and aloo gobhi. On night one my friend and I agreed on the lamb tikka masala and saag paneer. I couldn't find a reason to like the latter, a creamed spinach puree studded with firm, mild cheese. I tasted a little oregano but nothing like garlic, ginger, or spices to liven it up. But the chunks of tandoori lamb chops that were roasted and then bathed in a thick, creamy tomato sauce (itself not the liveliest of combinations) had been rubbed with more aggressive seasonings, which carried the dish.
On my second visit, two friends and I took our cues from the previous night and ordered a sensible amount of food, which meant that large sections of the menu are still virgin territory. That's always frustrating when the menu is so big, and doubly frustrating when the food is uneven. What are the kitchen's strengths? What do you have to avoid? I still don't quite know.
Based on what we ordered, though, I'd definitely recommend trying whatever is on the specials board. Both of the nightly specials looked more interesting than the rest of the menu, and the kofta curry was the best dish I tried. In it, homemade cheese was mixed with grated squash and chickpea flour and molded into balls, which were then fried. Afterward the kofta were simmered in a spiced tomato sauce made creamy with ground nuts. Both the kofta and the sauce had good flavor.
To accompany the food, Sahib offers a cursory wine list ("red" and "white"), plus just about every Indian beer to be found in the States. Some were what American microbreweries have labeled "India Pale Ales" -- stronger and more heavily hopped than our normal brews. Golden Eagle, which was new to me, tasted like nothing I'd ever tried: an oaky, slightly smoky pilsner that must have been stored in wooden barrels.
They say that beer washes away the sting of chile peppers much better than water. That didn't prove to be a problem at Sahib, since nothing we tasted raised a bead of sweat on our brows. It required a hefty dollop of the chile puree to set the tongue a-tingling. That was just what the slightly dry tandoori chicken, bright red and milder than the lamb in the tikka masala, needed. The sour, bland vegetable medley called sabazi masala needed more than that. While I appreciated the fact that the kitchen included seasonal turnips and carrots along with the mess of peas, I didn't feel compelled to finish it.
Despite the fact that saffron-dyed rice comes with the meal, head for the bread. It's all good. The plain nan contrasts crispy, charred edges with a soft white-wheat interior. For onion kulcha the cooks wrap the same dough around scallions and softened onions, and for aloo pratha they enclose potatoes and peas in a whole-wheat crust. Sahib's poori, deep-fried whole wheat bread, is too thick to stay puffed up, but it has a nice crackly, oily skin and tender interior.
At lunch six days a week, Sahib serves a $6.95 Indian buffet. I'm a big fan of Indian buffet, but not because I've ever tasted one that has wowed me with its freshness. Ordering Indian food in small groups is frustrating, because most of the time we don't have the stomach or the money to order a full meal, with appetizer treats, dal, vegetable sides, curries, raita, and other relishes, rice or bread, and dessert. (Sahib actually offers the lone diner a complete set for $14.95 or $16.95.) Indian buffet lunches allow you to get the whole thing.
Next time you head to a white-tablecloth bistro and find your normal entrées replaced with mac and cheese and beef stew, remember: Comfort comes in many forms, many of them cheaper and friendlier.
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