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Spice of Life

Christopher Gardner

Double Dishing: Owner Baldev Mann and his wife, Gurmeet Mann, serve up some of Janta's specialties.

At Janta, aromatic flavors from India warm the palate without burning it

By Andrew X. Pham

AUTHENTIC ETHNIC restaurants tend to be inaccessible, the spices too exotic, the ambiance not quite comfortable, the service not entirely professional. Janta is a rare exception. How it manages to integrate all the factors and still preserve quality and authenticity is a bit of a mystery.

The restaurant resembles a small adobe with stucco facades painted in warm desert tones. Somewhat cramped with a low ceiling and too many tables, the dining room feels like a trattoria or a cantina. The only Indian artifacts are a scattering of prints and carvings, and a mounted puppet. Indian music provides a background for the often lively atmosphere of a full house on weekday lunches and weekend evenings. The
casualness of Janta makes dining fun and cozy.

Family-owned and-operated, the restaurant exudes pride. Owner Baldev Mann and chef Kundan Lal are passionate about food. They buy mostly organic vegetables and bake bread daily. Mann will happily explain to his patrons the recipes and cooking methods of each dish--with the exception of the curry, which he guards carefully. Justly so, because Janta makes some of the best curries around.

Fresh, hot and crispy, the appetizers are outstanding. The deep-fried keema samosas ($3.50), filled with lamb and vegetables, whet the appetite amazingly well with either of the accompanying sauces, tamarind or yogurt mint. The latter is particularly strong, almost hot with mint. The chicken pakoras ($5.49) are truly delicious. Batons of boneless chicken, coated with garbanzo batter and deep fried, appear half a world removed from buffalo wings.

One interesting note about Janta: Everything is served pretty much steaming hot, a divergence from the traditional finger-food temperature. Authenticity aside, the difference actually makes the cuisine more accessible and palatable to non-native diners.

A prime example of the family's superior curries is the sea bass and potato vindaloo ($12.50), served with basmati rice or naan (Indian flat bread). Huge chunks of boneless sea bass are baked in a clay oven and then simmered in curry. Backed by plenty of cilantro and scallions, the fish and the potato complement the complex curry. At Janta, the flaming flavors of chiles mingle into an aromatic spice mix that thoroughly warms the palate without singeing it.

The rojan josh ($11.95 features another well-executed curry--thick and creamy--served with oven-roasted lamb. Each curry owns a slightly different flavor, one more pronounced with cumin, another distinct with bay leaves. But Mann and Lal believe the Western palate favors garlic, so they often use garlic in ample quantities.

Naan or rice accompanies all entrees. Chock full of flavors, the naan are always hot and fresh from the clay oven. The kabuli naan ($2.99), an obvious standout, is a flat round bread folded with a mix of Indian spices, yogurt, nuts and cilantro, and then baked with a light brushing of vegetable oil.

The basmati rice, on the other hand, is a mediocre vehicle for the entrees. Although the portions are generous, the rice lacks the depth and flavors that are the hallmarks of top-grade basmati.

Rice lovers should go with one of the biryani. The saffron in these dishes compensates for the lackluster rice. The organic vegetables biryani ($8.95) will please vegetarians with a brilliant palette of colors. Mixed in the yellow saffron-infused rice are white cauliflower and blanched almonds, red carrots, and green peas, broccoli and cilantro. Fragrant with cardamom, chiles, garlic and a host of other spices, this biryani is definitely one of Janta's fortes.

Janta shines so well with its curries and vegetables that the shortcomings of its soups seem inconsequential. Both the lentil dal ($1.95) and the mulligatawny ($2.45), a chicken-based lentil soup, come in underflavored and watery.

Two popular desserts are kufi ($3) and gulab jamun ($2.50). The kufi proves more icy than creamy, and the gulab jamun features cheese balls in an overly sweet syrup; both are adequate, neither extraordinary.

The perfect conclusion is probably a simple cup of chai. The Indian spiced tea, its interplay of cardamom, cinnamon and ginger mellowed with honeyed milk, ends the meal on a pensive note--the perfect refreshment to take while pondering how Janta manages to be so authentic, and yet so accessible even to timid diners.

Address: 369 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/462-5903
Cuisine: Indian
Ambiance: lively and casual
Hours: Lunch daily, 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner daily, 5:30-10pm
Entrees: $8-16

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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