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Bargain Spice

[whitespace] Banjara
Of Spice and Men: The buffet at Banjara offers an affordable spread of fire-powered South Indian cuisine.

George Sakkestad

Banjara offers deals for lovers of Indian and vegetarian fare

By Andrew X. Pham

DINING AT an unknown restaurant for the first time is like going on a blind date. You never know whether you will fall in love or just get a stomach ache. It's a thrilling experience that not many choose to do on a regular basis. Of course, we restaurant critics are the worst addicts, forever seeking out love affairs for our taste buds. Slaves to the infidelity of our palates, we flirt our way from table to table, from town to town, our senses afire, hoping to ferret out the "good ones."

We had our doubts when we first set eyes on Banjara. The restaurant's setting shouted greasy American diner fare long out of favor with the modern palate, but the marquee claimed Indian cuisine. As we stepped through the door we caught a reassuring whiff of aromatic tandoori, so we decided to brave the visual contradictions of Banjara.

The atmosphere is offbeat enough to be enjoyable. For those who find that low prices create the best sort of ambiance, Banjara is a prime deal, particularly for lovers of South Indian food. Portions are generous and a la carte dishes come with rice and nan.

A large bowl of sambar, a hearty, almost creamy lentil and vegetable soup, accompanied our masala dosa ($2.95), which was a slightly chewy crepe made with a blend of fermented lentils and rice flour. Eighteen inches in diameter and colored like a huge fortune cookie, the dosa was folded around vegetable curry with a potato base and served with mint chutney, tamarind sauce and coconut chutney. The whole thing was as filling as a good-sized burrito. Coupled with a tandoori combo platter--a sizzling iron plate of spiced lamb sausages, chicken tikka and lamb cutlets ($4.50, serves two)--two orders of any dosa on the menu are sufficient to make a small meal for two.

"Fish Fry" ($10.95) offered chunks of sea bass that were lightly floured, pan fried and overwhelmed with a dose of spices (lots of paprika) and a fistful of curry--a powerful intensity quite at odds with the spicing moderation in other dishes. Also, the fish didn't taste as fresh as it should have.

Both the special Banjara lamb ($9.95) and the ginger chicken ($8.95) deftly emphasized the way Indian sauces embrace a profusion of spices. While big chunks of lamb were simmered in a brown sauce as thick as cheese, the chicken was chopped into tiny pieces like macaroni and stewed with curry and just a touch of ginger.

When we visited, the folks at Banjara were still ironing out the kinks in their months-old business. Service was sporadic; some courses arrived quickly, some tardily. Sometimes our waiter seemed constantly on hand; other times he vanished like a genie. Throughout the meal, though, he was helpful with the menu and very cheerful.

There is little doubt Banjara is carving a successful niche for itself. Its generous kitchen specializes in a large variety of South Indian dishes, and the prices make it one of the better bargains in its class.

Cuisine: South Indian
Ambiance: Casual '60s American diner
Menu: Complete meal $10-$13; buffet lunch $6.95
Hours: Lunch daily 11:30am-3pm; dinner daily 5:30-10pm
Address: 407 Town & Country Village, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/737-9151

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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