Rohit Singh is the Cyrano de Bergerac of Indian cuisine, minus the nose -- a culinary romantic who woos with words. At the new Walnut Creek outpost of Breads of India, the menu is almost comically long. Three pages. Nine entrées. As with the Berkeley original, it takes Singh a paragraph to describe each dish, the region or ethnic group it comes from, every ingredient, and all the steps in its preparation. He leaves a couple of inches here and there to squeeze in a list of drinks, breads, and appetizers. The two-item dessert menu is, of course, a separate document. "You should just reprint the menu for your review," one friend suggested.
Singh repeats the formula he perfected at Breads number one, cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients and changing menus daily. At present, Breads of the Creek lists four permanent entrees, including Coorgi roast pork and tandoori prawns, and five specials. Each comes on a plate with turmeric-gilded rice, a loose split-lentil dal, a small undressed salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and a dab of marvelously rich eggplant pickle.
On the days I visited we saw Punjabi kabobs rubbed in a paste of twenty-plus ingredients; Zoroastrian chicken in cashew-paste, coconut, and saffron curry; and lamb stewed with black pepper and tomato, Lucknow style. The only familiar name, the Anglo-Indian chicken tikka masala, comes across as a concession, though its loving description makes it sound more romantic than the story I prefer to believe, Indian cooks spicing up canned tomato soup to satisfy their pub-crawling customers' demand for "gravy" on their chicken kebabs.
In a region with countless restaurants serving the same tandoori-vindaloo-palak-paneer menu, Breads of India has always stood out for highlighting India's diverse regional cuisines. Singh's essay-format menus don't just lay out the context for each dish, they compensate for Westerners' unfamiliarity with the Indian palate. Like wine labels that instruct novice drinkers to suss out the flavors of raspberry, fig leaf, cola beans, and gunpowder, his descriptions are meant to help us tease out the individual spices that animate each dish.
Of course, context isn't everything. The most important question: Does it taste good?
Well, if it's meat and it comes out of the tandoor oven, it does. Pork isn't as rare in India as it is on Indian menus in the States, so it's a pleasure to carve into the pink-centered Coorgi roast -- a chop with meat left on the ribs -- tenderized by papaya juice and slathered in peppery spices. If you pluck the tandoori salmon off its smoke-hot cast-iron plate before it overcooks, a fork easily splits the fillet into buttery chunks, each ringed with an aromatic crust.
Many of the vegetarian dishes, however, taste muddier, the distinctions between regions and spices blurred. Punjabi curries usually mount spices on a holy trio of aromatics -- onions, garlic, and ginger -- that carry the more aromatic notes into the nose on a thick wash of flavor. But in the paneeri sabji -- peas, potatoes, and fresh cheese -- the ginger and garlic faltered, stalling the dish. In fact, it didn't taste so different from the other veggie dish of the day, mangori ki bhaji, a Rajasthani mix of vegetables stewed with oblong lentil dumplings. Perhaps the regions were too near one another. But the romance of the menu description dimmed quickly. It made me wonder: It's easy to collect recipes from a wide range of regions, but isn't the most important ingredient -- the cook -- going to give them all the same cast?
Meat must bring out the best in Breads of India's cooks -- attierchi theeyal, a Keralan (Southwest Indian) dish of lean, long-simmered lamb, wove together many of the same ingredients mentioned in the vegetarian recipes, but somehow the red meat deepened the cast of their flavors, aided by the earthy aromas of curry (kari) leaves and mustard seeds. The curry leaves stood out more clearly atop a creamy base of ground coconut, onions, poppy seeds, roasted garlic, and spices coating the koli kari, braised free-range chicken.
With a name like Breads of India, the namesake had better be good. Singh once told me that he kept a master list of 160 bread recipes. Standbys like plain naan or chapati show up on the menu as an afterthought. You're really supposed to focus on daily specials like naan sprinkled with black olives or sesame seeds, or whole-wheat parathas (griddled flatbreads) stuffed with fenugreek leaves or seasoned rice. The menu suggests correct breads for each entrée, in fact. The tandoori-baked naans and kulchas lived up to their descriptions -- each the size of a serving platter and light and bubbly, the thinnest edges blackened in the heat of the clay oven, their flavor lightly spiked with the topping. But the stuffed parathas came out tough every time. The thick, rubbery dough absorbed the flavors of its filling.
Water won't abate the sugar shock that greets your teeth when you eat Indian desserts, but at least Singh infuses something else into the sweetness. Molecule-thin sheets of silver foil were melted on top of his gulab jamun. Normally about as yawnworthy a dessert as flan, the balls of pressed cheese remained toothsome, flavored with screwpine (pandan) leaf in a spice-drenched syrup.
The Walnut Creek Breads of India precedes a soon-to-open location at 10th and Clay streets in downtown Oakland; Singh hopes to start serving lunch and dinner there by December 10. The restaurateur first tried expanding his empire three years ago with the high-end Zaika, whose prices and anecdotal reputation for unevenness quickly doomed it. Taking his cue from the explosion of Punjabi minichains such as Pakwan and Naan 'n' Curry, Singh has come back with a smarter approach: a series of lower-cost, small-scale Breads of Indias.
He tailored his new Walnut Creek restaurant to the neighborhood. In a city where mottled walls, fluorescent lights, and Xeroxed menus say "dirty" instead of "authentic" to diners, Singh spent a few bucks on Western-friendly design. Echoing the insides of a tandoor oven, perhaps, the walls evolve upwards from orange to ochre. You may feel a little like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, except your redeeming angel is delivering naan, not salvation. Add hardwood tables and strings of halogen lights and it's positively tasteful. Other less-traditional touches: The food arrives promptly, the buser refills your water glass, and the waiters stop by to ask how everything is.
Though the new Breads of India's execution still varies, its concept is solid and, by preliminary reports, successful. On my two visits, I saw a customer mix I've never seen in an Indian restaurant before. Sitting side by side were expat tech workers and former frat brothers, saris and sweater sets. All reading their menus. And reading. And reading.
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