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[whitespace] Jagbier Singh
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Birds in the Hand: Tandoori cook Jagbier Singh cooks up flocks at a time in Amber India's clay oven.

Golden Glow

Amber India's exquisite decor and spice-laden dishes spark warm, pleasant memories for satisfied diners

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

FOR MONTHS I've kept a close eye on three Indian restaurants located in Mountain View along El Camino Real: Amber India, Passage to India and Swagat. They're all pretty close to one another, and all have received favorable reports from diners and would-be critics alike (and there are plenty out there, believe me). My reason for choosing to review Amber India over the others is strictly due to my having had ample opportunity to explore its menu in recent years. Having dined there on two prior occasions, I wanted to find out if the level of quality and consistency I found in the past still exists today. The answer is yes.

As I suspected when I first visited several years ago, Amber India is no short-duration dining establishment--it has dug in for the long haul. There is depth in both kitchen and dining room, where the restaurant experience unfolds like a bolt of rare and beautiful silk. Once you get over the jarring experience of parking in one of the saddest-looking strip malls on El Camino Real and then entering an exquisite, intimate and romantically decorated restaurant interior, you will know that you've discovered a jewel.

Inside is a golden world of muted lighting, with warm, luminous fabrics that frame areas of luxurious seating. The richness of India is evoked here without garish ornamentation or an overabundance of import curios. There are two dining rooms. The central space is much larger than the secluded antechamber situated to the left and along the side. I prefer the more spacious center room where traditional Zardosee carpets and brass lighting sconces punctuate this comfortable environment.

Indian cuisine is among the world's greatest. And for good reason. Like their Chinese, the Indians have been at the stoves for centuries perfecting their culinary craft, one that transcends mere sustenance and rises to the level of a philosophy. Like the few great cuisines of this earth, Indian is as complex and as varied as the human expressions for sadness and joy.

Northern Indian cuisine is the specialty of Amber India and its now-celebrated chef/owner, Vijay Bisp. Journalists' accounts of his cooking, his beginnings, his recipes and his unflagging devotion to the culinary arts cover the walls of the entry like plaques of honor.

Diners who are watching their diets or trying to lower cholesterol levels will appreciate the many offerings that cater to those needs without sacrificing flavor or richness. I can recommend a dinner that we had and loved. It began with homemade raita ($2.95), or yogurt blended with grated cucumber, and a basket of assorted Indian breads ($6.95) that included freshly made onion kulcha, naan and pudina paratha. All are variations of whole-wheat flat bread prepared with or without stuffing and with little oil. We dipped pieces into the bittersweet raita and were refreshed.

Next, we indulged ourselves on chicken ka tikka ($14.95), one of the glories of the famous tandoor, a hand-cast clay oven that predates the modern convection oven by thousands of years. On a sizzling platter, positioned over caramelized onions, came large chunks of skinned boneless chicken breast marinated with yogurt, ginger, garlic and fenugreek (an ancient herb with maple-flavored leaves). The breast here is perfectly cooked in the even heat of the oven so all natural juice is fully preserved with whispers of the clay and spices communicated in every bite.

With our chicken we had a bowl of saffron rice and another of vegetable biryani ($10.95), both made with long-grained basmati rice cooked tender and light with aromatic spices. In addition, we had Amber's special ki hari sabzi (fresh seasonal greens; $9.25)-- bok choy and spinach sauteed with garlic in light oil. If you turn up your nose at greens, perhaps baigan bharrta ($9.25)--cubes of tender eggplant simmered with onions, tomatoes and more aromatic herbs--will suit your finicky nature. If not, try deep-fried cubes of cottage cheese in a rich cream sauce, or lentils or farmer's cheese and peas in a spicy gravy that will open new and unexpected passages to the olfactory nerve. Faint of heart, steer clear of mirch ka gosht ($15.95). This alternative to the classic lamb curry, rogan josh, proved a fiery, complex cousin that struck us as unfamiliar and strangely medicinal at first. Swiftly thereafter the flavors of this rich ebony stew--full of lamb, peppercorns, green chiles, ginger and saffron--took hold of the palate with unrelenting and irresistible force.

Among the many desserts offered on the menu, we stuck with the well-known gulab jamun ($3.75)--cottage cheese dumplings soaked with honey and rose water--which inaugurated peaceful digestion with its subtle sweetness.

Diners who are accustomed to having one waiter during a meal should forget about those expectations, because at Amber India service is a complex matter that involves just about everybody hired to walk the floor in these dining confines. No matter who was delivering dishes to our table, everything was handled with care and efficiency in a style that one expects from haute dinner houses in big cities.

On the way out, I holstered my pen and took time to read what my cohorts in the trade had to say about Amber India. I stepped slowly from one framed critique to another, reading their words--mostly of praise and celebration--for this little, oddly located Indian treasure. It deserves every ounce of their appreciation--maybe more.

Amber India
Address: 2290 El Camino Real, Mountain View
Phone: 650.968.7511
Cuisine: Northern Indian, tandoori
Hours: Open daily; lunch 11:30am-2:30pm and dinner 5-10pm
Prices: $8-$18

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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