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The Royal Treatment

Savoring the Empress of India's savoir-faire

By Stett Holbrook

I ADMIT it. I'm biased. I have a thing for restaurants that don't have menus. I love restaurants that are dedicated to serving not only what is good and fresh on any particular day, but also whatever strikes the chef's fancy. Instead of being wedded to a pre-printed menu these restaurants make it up as they go along and trust that we'll go along with them. There's no daily special; everything is special. At least that's the idea.

I also have a soft spot for restaurants hidden in forlorn, easy-to-miss strip malls, the kind of eateries sandwiched between dry cleaners and video-rental stores. While you have to do some real digging to separate the memorable from the I'll-never-eat-there-again establishments, this is where you'll find some of Silicon Valley's most authentic, down-to-earth and affordable eats.

So when I heard about Santa Clara's Empress of India, my expectations were high. The 15-year-old restaurant has no menu and occupies a storefront in a lackluster minimall off El Camino Real. Talk about good omens.

Empress of India didn't disappoint. The restaurant serves inspired, northern-leaning Indian fare in an atmosphere that feels like you've gone to visit the Indian mother you never had. And if you have an Indian mother, you'll feel even more at home.

In addition to a lack of a menu, the restaurant is only open for lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner just on Saturday nights. It will open for dinner any other night as long as you call ahead with a party of four or more. Chef/server/owner Jeanne Bonk places such a premium on fresh ingredients freshly prepared that she'll open just for you, but if no one calls she won't open at all. I love that. And if you have a special request, say lobster or whole fish, she'll make it.

"It's not your run-of-the-mill Indian food," says Bonk, whose refined demeanor and English accent make it easy to think of her as royalty. "I just believe in cooking up everything fresh every day."

The Empress doesn't quite work in a castle, though. The sign out front is missing some of the letters. There are a few spider webs on the chandeliers above the small dining room. The restaurant is clean but rather spare, save for a couple of Indian-themed tapestries hanging on the wall. But don't let any of that worry you. You're here to eat well, and what the restaurant lacks in décor, it more than makes up for in the kitchen.

Once seated, Bonk or perhaps one of her sisters will ask you if you'd like vegetarian or nonvegetarian fare. Other than deciding when to quit eating, that's the only decision you have to make. Just a few minutes later, the food starts to arrive. And it keeps on coming. Dinner is $25 for vegetarian and $30 for meat and vegetarian dishes, and you're certain to have leftovers. The lunch buffet is $11.

In the course of two visits, several dishes stood out. Bhindi (which translates as ladyfingers) are bite-size pieces of okra cooked with nearly melting, slow-cooked onions. The dish has a smoldering heat and a wonderful, complex flavor. Panneer bhurjee, homemade cheese with peas, is another delicate but deeply flavored dish. Chicken curry and lamb curry are both excellent and made with fresh, bright flavors of coriander, black pepper and other spices. The spicy yellow dal and silky but piquant puréed eggplant are also excellent.

The one dish that stumbled slightly was the tandoori chicken. While the oven-baked chicken had a tangy, yogurt-imparted exterior, the meat was dry and offered little beyond the initial burst of flavor.

On the other hand, I didn't expect much from the rice but was pleasantly surprised. The long grain, basmati rice is laced with aromatic spices like cardamom, black pepper and coriander. And although I had little room for it, I couldn't stop eating the hot, freshly made wheat naan.

Bonk's deft touch extends to drinks as well. The hand-whipped lassi ($2.50) and chai ($5 for a pot) are both delicious. It takes a few minutes for these beverages, but that's just an indication of the care that goes into them.

Empress of India's lack of a menu and dumpy minimall location drew me in, but it's the restaurant's food and Bonk's royal but unpretentious service that will bring me back.

Empress of India
Address: 3426 El Camino Real, Santa Clara
Phone: 408.296.0717
Hours: Lunch 11am-2pm Mon-Fri, dinner 6:30pm-9:30pm Sat; other nights by reservation
Wine and beer

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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