Surface Charmer 

Khana Peena

When you open up a restaurant, plan on working fourteen hours a day, six to seven days a week, month after month after month. You'll build a solid kitchen and service crew, a successful menu, and a devoted clientele, all the while coping with the four million disasters that occur every day. Even experienced restaurateurs go weak in the knees at the thought. Deepak Aggarwal, owner of Berkeley's Khana Peena, is doing something even crazier: He's starting up a new restaurant with absolutely no experience.

"Well, a long time ago I worked as a dishwasher and helped in the kitchen," says Aggarwal. "I've had a dream to open a restaurant. I wanted to do something special." He enlisted the help of his family -- "everyone you see here is a brother or a cousin" -- and an experienced chef, Sohan "Jaggi" Singh.

Some of the features that Aggarwal hopes will set Khana Peena (which means "food and drink") apart from well-loved competitor Ajanta (the two Solano Avenue eateries sit directly across from each other) are its open kitchen and private dining rooms. The décor really does function as a draw -- the restaurant has one of those rooms that makes up for some of its other faults. The high, open space is painted in chic shades of pumpkin, with large, colorful banners along both walls. Looking up, one becomes mesmerized by the abstract arrangement of canvas flags that loop from the ceiling.

Patrons have a choice of seating arrangements. They can dine at one of the formal, linen-topped tables near the entrance. They can keep an eye on the open kitchen, shiny and percolating with activity, from a perch at the curvy copper bar. Or they can recline on colorful cushions around low tables in one of the three private rooms open to parties of four or more.

Khana Peena's menu is sparer than most Indian restaurants, which means diners needn't spend hours trying to figure out which of 150 dishes to try. The menu offers a few appetizers, a couple of soups, and about fifteen meat stews, tandoori specialties, and vegetable entrées, all à la carte. A three-course dinner with bread and a glass of wine tops off at $25 per person. The lunch menu offers most of the same dishes as the dinner menu, but at $2 an item less.

The menu rotates every two months and is "strictly Punjab." The first installment, due to change this week, stuck to North Indian standards, dishes so familiar that they don't even merit descriptions. They tasted familiar and pleasant, like an acquaintance you chat with every time you run into her even though you keep forgetting her name and can't remember how you know her. The potatoes and peas packed into the vegetable samosa hinted at cumin and coriander but never stated them outright. It took a large dollop of the tangy mint-chili chutney to save the dumplings from blandness. But the pakoras in our mixed appetizer platter were much tastier. Many restaurants pack a bunch of vegetables together and batter and deep-fry them until they'll stay crisp for weeks. At Khana Peena, each zucchini slice and length of shredded tandoori chicken got its own crisp, mildly spiced chickpea-flour coating. More memorable were the zingy shammi kabobs, two patties of chopped lamb mixed up with spices and studded with lentils and chickpeas.

Since this is strictly North Indian food, head for the breads. Underneath the lightly crisp outer layer of our pillow-like garlic puri, a fried round of wheat dough, was a soft, doughy center aromatic with garlic. We most enjoyed the prothas, both plain and "stuffed" with a thin layer of curried potato or cauliflower. The whole-wheat flavor of the griddled breads added an earthy note to the curries we wrapped in them.

I wasn't impressed with the thin, overly crisp naan. Like everything else that came out of the tandoor oven, it had been taken out a little too late. The tandoori chicken breast meat in our chicken tikka masala didn't benefit from either its pre-roasting marinade nor the gloopy, tomatoey cream sauce that it ended up in. Our tandoori fish hissed and smoked on its sizzle platter as it descended to the table. But the sensation was all in the eye. Coated in a lackluster turmeric-ginger-yogurt paste with a bit of a kick (a tap, really), the overcooked whitefish was less of a treat than the onions that softened and sweetened as they sizzled away beneath it.

Chef Singh has a brighter touch with the curries and stewed dishes. In fact, according to my tablemate, who had popped in a month before and left unimpressed, the food has already perked up. When it lacked vividness it made up for it in freshness; the flavors of the ingredients shone through the complex spice mixtures layered on top. For example, the cauliflower and potatoes in the aloo gobi weren't overcooked, and their mild flavors came through the turmeric-dominated spice mix that coated them. Our mattar paneer, peas with fried cubes of firm, bland cheese, picked up some sweetness from the sautéed ginger and onions in the masala.

The bolder, the better. The only Punjab regional specialty that I'd never tasted before was the ma dal, made with firm black lentils (also known as urad dal) held together in a flavorful onion and cardamom sauce spiked with cilantro. The vibrant tomato-based curry sauce in our spicy lamb karahi kept sending me to the water glass and bringing me back for more. Our ginger chicken, halfway between a curry and a stir-fry, picked up huge flavor from the big chunks of ginger sautéed up with the meat.

Khana Peena's mild hand with the seasonings actually improved the three desserts we tasted -- my teeth didn't ache from the sugar afterward. We could even taste the milk flavor of the cream coating the ras malai, soft poached dumplings of fine-grained cottage cheese. A subtle tang gave the kulfi, a reduced-milk ice cream flavored with rosewater, an unexpected depth.

The area where the owner's lack of experience shows is the service. Our waiter had all the finesse of a high school quarterback. He barged about the room like he was yards away from a first down at the tail end of the fourth quarter. He was so eager to turn over our table on the first visit that he tossed the check at us without bothering to ask if we wanted dessert. When we called him back to ask about sweets, he rattled off the names of a few (saying, "You know what they are," which wasn't quite true) and pressured us for an answer. I glumly watched far more competent servers deliver food to other diners all around us.

With horror I saw the same waiter approach the table on my second visit, grinning as he recognized me. "Hey, you were in here before," he crowed. I smiled wanly. This time I took charge of service and walked him through the meal with direct, specific commands, and we got along just fine. I didn't trust him enough, however, to get help with an interesting-looking wine list offering a good range of Californian and European varietals at good prices, so I stuck to beer and my new favorite soda, Limca. It's tart, sweet, limey, and fizzy, perfect with curried dishes.

Khana Peena has a lot of good things going for it: an attractive room, fresh ingredients, a nice wine list. But Aggarwal is facing stiff competition and a tough audience. It's going to take more than familiar food that's just plain good to keep the restaurant hopping.Khana Peena1889 Solano Ave., Berkeley. 510-528-2519. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m., seven days a week. Dinner: 5-9:30 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 5-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Fully wheelchair accessible.I'm accustomed to chefs being excited when I let them know I've just reviewed their restaurant, so I was taken aback by Michael Adams' response to my call. "Um, that's interesting," said the chef of Berkeley's LaRue Brasserie and Bistro. "Actually, tomorrow is my last day here."

Not only was it his last day, but the entire kitchen staff departed with him, as did three-quarters of the front-of-house staff. Oops. I had to dump yet another half-completed review into the trash.

Adams leaves LaRue in the hands of owner George Wong, who also owns Crème de la Crème in Rockridge. According to Wong, Adams had "another job offer, so he's going to leave for a better job." He claimed not to know who made the offer.

The now-former chef, who had been a working partner, told a different tale. "Let's just say we had some differences in the way we ran the business," he said. According to one of the departing waitstaff, who offered up a tactfully constructed explanation, "Disagreements became disrespectful." The staffers decided to quit soon after the chef gave notice August 1.

Adams, who has stirred up quite a buzz at LaRue with his pitch-perfect rustic French food, isn't sure what he plans to do next -- other than take a few weeks off. "After my [positive] review in the Chronicle I don't think I'll have a problem finding work."

Replacing Adams will be Randall Brown, formerly the chef of San Francisco's Plouf, an ultra-French bistro specializing in mussels and other seafood. Brown and a sous-chef from Le Chapeau, another well-regarded bistro from across the bay, took over the kitchen August 16. Watch this space for news.

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