Photo from Amber-India.com
I don't understand why Indian places always have to be cheap and dingy and have buffets and leave you smelling like a tandoori oven when you depart (kudos to Roti and DOSA for changing that paradigm). Another member in that better-heeled bunch is ~AMBER INDIA~ on Yerba Buena Lane--it's a sister restaurant to the well-known Mountain View location, and the other one on Santana Row.
This location is definitely slick and polished, so if you want your chicken tikka to be $9.95 or less, you might want to stop before heading down the marble staircase. Actually, you just need to turn around and head into the bar: there's a killer happy hour, which is Monday through Friday from 4pm-7pm, with $3 beers, $5 wines, and three kinds of $5 cocktails. $5 bar snacks include Indian street food and chaat, like pani puri, bhel puri, and batata vada. It explains why the lounge was totally packed when I showed up one evening at a little before 7pm. I could only find one lone seat at the bar. Every cocktail table was covered in small plates and glasses of wine and cocktails, and the bartender's iPod was supplying the upbeat tracks.
The cocktails were a bit too "exotica" for my taste (to wit: açai liqueur, pear vodka, and the like making appearances), but the Bulleit Manhattan would be my anchor. $5, no holler. That price will make anyone happy, right quick.
The lounge feels like a light-up disco dancefloor come to life, with a changing LED color panel behind the bar of lime green, fuchsia, cyan--it also reminded me of that massively expensive light treatment therapy you can find at nicer spas, the Max 7. Just consider this cocktail therapy. There are also low-slung yellow cube chairs, a light-up bar, and purple barstools. I guess you could describe the look as Indian pimp.
Once you descend the stairs into the dining room, hole in the wall this most certainly is not. It's very spacious, with a variety of different seating areas. The vibe is a bit business-y, but there are no tablecloths, and the room is livened up with hits of bright color from the chairs of garnet, ochre, and purple, and the rust-colored booths. Weirdly there was no music, so the dining room felt a little flat in that regard. But the smell, oh yes--it's amazing when you walk in. The décor may be slick, but the heavenly and homey smell of Indian food simmering and spices is there as soon as you walk in the door.
I was imagining the food was going to be a little honk-ified, but with my first bite of the fresh fish cafreal ($9.95; grilled catfish marinated in cilantro and garam masala), I was like, oh, hello! A total palate-pinger. The fish was so savory--chef Anish Potdar is thankfully not shy with heat and spice. Although I could have done without the limp undressed garnish of salad on the side, and the sliced cherry tomato (the official cop out of the garnish world).
The palak chaat salad ($8.75) was another unexpected hit: the crispy spinach leaves were lightly battered and fried, but magically not greasy, topped with drizzles of tamarind chutney and yogurt--a total sensory treat of different textures and temperatures. It's a quality I really adore about Indian food.
It's crazy what a marinade of yogurt can do to some duck breast: the pan-fried duck tinka kebabs ($9.95) were such tender morsels, and with a definite kick. The dipping sauce with dill and caper just added to the mouthwatering flavors, but I didn't care for the assertive almost-raw red onion on the skewer.
More yogurt magic happens with the free-range rack of lamb chops "frontier" ($27.95), also ridiculously tender, and dramatically served at the table with a sizzling platter of onions (you know, fajita style). Chomp the chops.
But I can't believe I didn't swoon over their signature dish, the famed butter chicken ($19.95). The deep tomato, butter, and cream sauce was fine, but the white meat was overcooked and stringy. I thought the sea bass moilee ($22.95), a South Indian preparation with onion and coconut sauce was much more savory and seductive.
We went cuckoo for the tandoori-stuffed aloo ($14.95), crisp halves of potato that are scooped out and filled with spiced cottage cheese, cashews, mint, marinated in spiced yogurt, and then grilled. A wonderful vegetarian dish, and a clever execution.
Another vegetarian winner was the dal amber ($12.95), straight up scrumptious. Do not miss this dish. So creamy, with herbs, tomato, and ribbons of ginger. I find myself craving it days later. Did you hear that? That was my stomach grumbling.
The wine list has some decent by-the-glass offerings (greco di tufo with my Indian food? yes please), and the staff was knowledgeable about what to pair with certain dishes.
Alas, dessert was not a strong finale. The coffee kulfi ($7) was icy and rock hard when it was served, and then immediately turned to mush, and I think the kesari rasmalai cheese dumplings ($7) in saffron milk syrup (with a texture like crème anglaise) will be too challenging as a dessert for most Americans. When in doubt, go for some chai ($3.25).
This place is perfect for large groups or a business dinner--the spendier pricing makes it ideal for an expense account. Definitely a good call for convention-goers. The restaurant doesn't have a real vibe, however--it's pretty much about the food, and not lively and urban like the way Dosa is. (Dosa is also really committed to organic and sustainable ingredients across the board.) I did enjoy our enthusiastic and attentive servers--they were quite pleasant.
I'm not a big fan of buffets (I like my food cooked to order, thanks), but deal seekers might want to check out the popular lunch buffet for $16.95. Lastly, there's a three-course pre-theater/early bird dinner for only $24 per person (Sun-Thu from 5pm-7pm, and Fri-Sat 5pm-6:30pm).
25 Yerba Buena Ln.
Cross: Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94103