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[whitespace] Good Karma

New Indian bistro heats up Cotati

By Paula Harris

Indian restaurants abound in my home town. London, and the rest of Britain for that matter, is teeming with Asian-Indian food establishments. From chic tandoori restaurants, boasting servers in silken saris, to grungy hole-in-the-wall curry take-outs, the perennial late-night staple of boozy pub crawlers, fire and spice rule.

Well, we're no longer in London, but tonight Sonoma County feels pretty similar. The rain is slicing down outside as the cloudy sky deepens and traffic snarls. It's cold. It's wet. It's just like home.

And I need a curry hit.

So, as we enter Karma Indian Bistro in Cotati, the intoxicating fragrance of simmering onions and ginger and the dizzy anticipation of savoring a thick, tongue-searing sauce are especially welcome.

This new restaurant, with a main dining room and a lunch buffet area, isn't fancy. Yet the white linen tablecloths and fresh flowers on each table lend a classy tone.

The walls are a sunny turmeric yellow. There's a little bar with three diner-type red leatherette and silver chrome stools, plus comfy booths and several tables. The recessed lighting and simplicity of the place is pleasing.

The music from the sound system emits a variety of melodies, from traditional Indian folk to smooth jazz from Kenny G.

Karma has received mixed reports about its service. According to the restaurant's owners, much of the problem was due to a faulty tandoor oven that was sometimes slow to bake the food.

After a closure of some three weeks to fix the traditional brick and clay heat source, the restaurant is back up and running.

The restaurant seems also to have alleviated the service problem by adding staff. We're served by several men in white shirts and black pants, and all are very helpful. Questions are encouraged, and the chefs will prepare dishes from mild to spicy to suit your taste and heat tolerance.

The cuisine of various Indian regions is represented. Specialties include tandoori meats and seafood marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in the clay oven, and a generous selection of curries. Vegetarians enjoy choices galore.

Samosas ($3.95)--two crisp pastry puffs, plump with spiced potatoes and peas--are a satisfying appetizer. They're served with two sauces, a tangy tamarind and a spicy mint.

The menu calls aloo tikki ($3.50) "lightly breaded potato cubes seasoned with herbs and spices," but these aren't cubes; they're patties. Still, with the toasty, non-oily outside and the fluffy mashed potato inside, they are a texture treat.

We order the baigan barta ($8.50), a vegetarian curry, extra spicy. But this version is actually quite mild, and doesn't resemble the fire served in England, where for some, the mark of a superior curry is when you sweat uncontrollably, your nose runs, and you tear up simultaneously.

This baigan barta, with freshly roasted eggplant, chopped onion, bell pepper and garlic, ginger, and herbs, is more smoky than spicy. I didn't care for the consistency, which is like mashed baby food.

The lamb saagwala ($12.95) is a rich curry featuring big cubes of lamb (chewy rather than tender) thickly coated in a fresh spinach and coriander sauce. It's bright with flavor but once again on the mild side, even though we ordered medium.

A lighter dish is the vegetable biryani ($9.95), rice-baked in the oven and brimming with green beans, roasted cashew nuts, peas, raisins, carrots, scallions, and spices.

Miniature copper dishes hold lemon-scented dal (lentil purée), which is so thick and fortifying that we drink it down rather than pour it over the rice.

A variety of condiments drive the intense flavors home. Raita ($1.95) is a cool refreshing yogurt and cucumber blend; sweet chutney ($1) is homemade using fresh mangos; and achar pickles ($1), an acquired taste, have a jarring flavor like a mouthful of stale, spicy seawater.

There's a wonderful selection of leavened breads baked in the clay oven, some studded with garlic and cilantro, others stuffed with potato and spinach. But I found the texture to be overly doughy.

A few wines are available, but cold beer may be a better choice. Try the Taj Mahal, Flying Horse, Golden Eagle, or Majaraja, all imported from India.

The one dessert offered this evening is a very runny looking rice pudding. We passed and sweetened our spicy breaths instead with a spoonful of fennel seeds and pinhead-sized mints offered in a bowl by the door.

We leave happy. Indian food can be stodgy, oily, and glutinous, so Karma is to be praised for offering a wide variety of flavorful regional specialties with a lighter touch--even though the sweating was kept to a modest minimum.


Karma Indian Bistro
Address: 7530 Commerce Boulevard, Cotati; 707.795.1729.
Hours: Lunch buffet Monday-Friday, 11:30a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday-Saturday, 5-9p.m. Closed Sundays.
Food: Indian
Service: Good and helpful
Ambiance: Comfortable rather than exotic
Price: Inexpensive to moderate
Wine list: Small wine selection but several Indian beers
Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

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From the December 27, 2001-January 2, 2002 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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