Down-Home Daal 

Biryani House is to Indian food what soda shops are to American food. Plus, the Mint Leaf shines on a return trip.

If history had gone slightly differently — say, if America had been colonized by India — then folksy Americana wouldn't be all Norman Rockwell and bald eagles but Mughal miniatures and elephant-headed Ganesh. And your friendly neighborhood diner, that casual, clattery place where they grin when you come in, wouldn't serve cheeseburgers but chana masala. Your thick white mug would be refilled perpetually not with coffee but with steaming, spicy, strong-enough-to-fuel-a-day's-work chai.

That's how it is at Biryani House. One month old and one block from the UC campus, this is where you relax in a Mumbai-meets-Mayberry way: unjudged, unripped-off, and rewarded with portions of down-home delights probably larger than you can eat in one go.

Down-home Lucknow, that is, in the case of the restaurant's signature dish: Biryani saffron-spiked long-grained basmati whose cardamom, cumin seeds, cinnamon-stick shards, and other aromatics — here studded with vegetable shreds and potato chunks — pack a punch you might not expect from fried rice. Available in vegetarian, lamb, prawn, and chicken versions, it's a hardy counterpoint to paneer tikka masala: tangy, cloud-soft cheese cubes in coral-red tomato-yogurt sauce so devastatingly velvety that you keep wondering whether you deserve to eat it. Ditto the luxuriantly puffy-chewy naan, either plain or potato-stuffed or studded with onions or garlic, each bread as big as an LP album and as preternaturally round.

This is a place where you hear yourself actually moaning Ahhh.

Meanwhile, the spicy chai is bottomless: Serve yourself from a communal urn, and it's on the house.

Long curtains in Indian-flag green, orange, and white frame soaring windows offering stunningly grand views of ... the trafficky corner of University and Shattuck avenues. And McDonald's. ("Skillet Burrito!" proclaims a banner there.) A father and four sons walk in and are soon tucking into a stack of naan as tall as a basketball. Four students argue intensely; one wears a tote bag printed with "Decolonizing Creativity: Fiery Womyn, Free Expression." Other students lounge, holding hands. Biryani House closed without warning for a week last month — the fourth or fifth week of its existence — due to personnel issues, later resolved. What a relief when it reopened, but on this corner, one never knows.

As locals will attest, restaurant after restaurant has opened here, then soon closed. The owner of the restaurant that was here before Biryani House was a customer at Atul Malik's DVD-rental shop. Although Malik — who is from New Delhi — had no past restaurant experience, he and a partner from Karachi decided to buy the business. They hired another customer as their chef.

Lucky choice. As a bouncy melody (think Spice Girls meet Morning Musume meets Bollywood) bopped through the speakers, the mostly student crowd used cheap white nubbly paper napkins to daub astounding sauces from mouths making Hey-wait-a-minute! smiles. Our vibrant tomatoey-turmericky mushroom masala featured a mountain of juicy plump fungi. Our baigan bharta — eggplant with onion and tomato — was smokily indulgent. Our chana masala — sauced chickpeas — packed enough protein to fuel a nice long hike. Plus the pillowy, dimpled, almost biblical bigness of that naan.

Plus leftovers to spare.

When you order at the counter, you probably won't be asked how hot or mild you want anything, and most dishes come out of the kitchen (whose goings-on you are free to stand and watch) medium-spicy, a teensy touch on the hot side. Specify if you want yours otherwise.

With twelve meatless entrées and two meatless appetizers to choose from, vegetarians will feel extra-welcome here. For their flesh-eating friends, some thirty meat entrées range from prawn masala to ashar gosht (pickle-style lamb curry) to tandoori fish, including vindaloo dishes and various types of kebab. Yogurt raita, the traditional dip studded with cilantro and red onion, is a satisfyingly milky-sour foil.

It's all à la carte. Malik says he'll never go the buffet route.

"With buffets, you need to have at least twenty things going at once. And in my thinking, nobody can maintain twenty things at one time. At any given moment, some things will be up, other things will be down — and then you get blamed for everything."

Back at Biryani House, on yet another night, Gregorian chant-influenced Indian pop surged through the speakers as a crowd of Tibetan teenagers poured in from a nearby anti-Beijing-Olympics protest. Clad in big-patterned hoodies and Free Tibet hats, seizing squeeze-bottles of sweet and hot sauce from a cooler to squirt on their food, they spread out to fill three tables, speaking Tibetan and English and laughing and flirting as only kids can.

It's the 21st-century American soda shop. With samosas.

Speaking of blame, readers remonstrated with me for being hard on another new Berkeley Indian restaurant, the Mint Leaf, in an earlier review, and urged me to give it another try. Paying the Mint Leaf a third visit, I found its flavors remarkably smoother and lusher. The spinach and lentil side dishes were spunkily earthy and as colorful as stained glass; the yogurt-infused korma sauce on our organic-vegetable and lamb dishes delivered sumptuous, royally rich bursts with every bite. Generous reefs of paneer cheese nestled among the vegetables, welcome if unannounced. Brown rice and whole-wheat naan are now available at lunchtime — previously, these were only featured at dinner — and our server was as friendly and helpful as a long-lost but very polite pal.


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