1888 Solano Avenue
Date of Visit: Sunday, March 8, 2009
Time: Lunch - 1:00 PM
Number of Diners: 2
Food Quality: 9
I have not had tremendous exposure to the vast variety of foods from the subcontinent of India. So if one is to experiment, one should start with the best! Hidden behind an unassuming storefront on Berkeley's Solano Avenue you can find the top-rated Indian cuisine restaurant in Northern California. Named for the Buddhist Ajanta caves in India and decorated with murals inspired by the cave paintings, Ajanta is near the top of the "Solano Avenue Stroll," and we had a very enjoyable walk from the car to the restaurant. This walk is necessitated by the total absence of parking except for on-street and the myriad of regulations for which Berkeley is so famous. Even on a Sunday afternoon parking was scarce, but the 5 block trek enabled us to absorb the picture-perfect weather. Once inside, a feeling of calm descended upon us, induced by the color scheme and decor of the serene dining area. They were not busy at all, with only three or four of the 20 tables filled, and we were greeted happily and seated promptly. We asked for two bottles of generic still water to sip while perusing the lunch menu. Example dishes from several regions (Chennai, Hyderabad, Kerala, Lucknow, Mumbai, Punjab, Sind, Uttar Pradesh) are randomly distributed throughout, making for dining combinations that would be nearly impossible in India outside of a major city. While the menu was not overly large, we took our time to get a good sampling of all they had to offer.
What we had with menu descriptions...
PAPADAM : Indian lentil wafers, served with mint-cilantro sauce (2 per order) $ 2.50
DAAL SOUP: A lentil soup, made with mung beans $ 4.50 (pictured at right)
Lunches are served with Basmati rice and a side dish of spinach and potatoes (with non-veg lunches) or chickpeas (with veg lunches) . Dishes can be ordered very mild, mild/low medium, medium, high medium or hot.
MILONI SABZI: Mixed vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, blue lake beans) cooked in a sauce made with pureed spinach, onions, garlic, coconut milk, cashews, and spices (Hyderabad) (Vegan) $ 7.00
PUDINA GOSHT: Boneless cubed Colorado lamb cooked in a sauce made with onions, tomatoes, ginger, coriander, turmeric, cumin, paprika, lemon juice and mint (Uttar Pradesh) $ 10.00
NAAN: Leavened dough bread cooked in tandoor oven $ 1.75
TAJ MAHAL BEER, Large (22 oz.) $ 6.00
CARDAMON GELATO $ 5.00
We opened with Taj Mahal beers, size large. This cool, refreshing beer is not nearly as light as the more well-known Kingfisher. It provided a malty counterpoint to the complex spice in the dishes, though the light, hoppy alternatives might have been better choices. For starters we ordered daal soup and a side of "Papadam." Most frequently spelled "poppadom," there appear to be many acceptable variant spellings (papadam, papaddam, papadom, papadum, papodam, papodum, popadam, popadom, poppadam, poppadum, poppodam, puppadum, puppodam, puppodum). However you choose to spell it, these tasty wafers are what potato chips can only wish to be - light, crunchy, complex, and delicious - these delicacies are prepared with over a dozen ingredients in labor intensive fashion and dried for several days before being grilled or fried. If Ajanta's version ever came near hot oil, it was impossible to tell - they were airy and delicate with no hint of oil or grease. Adding the freshly prepared herb sauce elevated the snack to a higher level. Having skipped breakfast, we opted for a second order. These chips are both delicious and fun - see the end of this post for a PacMan photo I grabbed from the Internet for an example!
The daal soup was as tasty as it was beautiful. Thick but not creamy, redolent of spice and fresh, organic legumes, it was the perfect stage-setter for the entrees to come. Mung beans may sound like something strange, but keep in mind that most bean sprouts you find in salad bars or elsewhere in the USA are mung bean sprouts. These legumes added bright yellow color along with great flavor and complexity to the bean texture of the lentils.
My dining companion ordered the lamb (gosht) with medium spice and I asked for my vegetarian meloni sabsi combo (pictured at right) hot. The waiter discreetly sought to find if I meant hot by American standards or a more global scale. Both diners assured him that I wanted the real deal. When the serving dishes arrived, all together, we prepared our plates with the aromatic rice and ladled portions of each entree onto separate areas. The lamb dish was bright, cheerful, and permeated with the essence of the meat. The melange of spices used added character without overpowering. All in all it was excellent. I tucked into the fresh vegetable dish, which was at once warm, fragrant, spicy, and mildly sweet. It was also very hot from a spice standpoint, bringing me to the edge of perspiration. A perfect execution.
My dining partner began fanning herself. "It's very spicy!" she proclaimed, indicating the lamb. I assured her that the lamb was not hot, and that if she thought so, she should avoid the veggie dish altogether. Instantly a waiter appeared from thin air, having heard me say "not hot." "We can make this hotter!" he assured me. "It will only take thirty seconds." I explained that both dishes were adequately spiced, but he repeated his offer. I suppose he had (quite accurately) targeted my dish for somewhere between an American and Indian hotness scale and was concerned I would need more. I don't mind my taste buds being zapped, but I don't need to break out into a sweat to enjoy it - so I declined his offer.
The side of fresh, plain Naan made a handy tool for pushing the food onto the fork, and was very tasty in its own right. Being famished and delighted with the meal, we eliminated all traces of every dish. I asked the waiter for some guidance with the desserts. Indian drinks and desserts can be extremely sweet, and I was hoping to avoid a sugar rush. He recommended the cardamon (aka cardamom) gelato, and it was a perfect capstone. Cool and fragrant, the cardamom spice is somewhere between cinnamon and clove. In the ice cream concoction it came to life, leaving my mouth with a cool, pleasant taste that lasted well into our walk down the Solano Stroll.
To be fair, if you look at my food scale, any properly prepared Indian food would rate a 7 or 8. Ajanta took it to the next level with their perfect application of dozens of spices to the fresh, organic ingredients. Each dish was a vibrant splash of color on the plate and a work of art on the palate - a solid 9 on the Ego scale.
Ajanta - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a top-notch Indian cuisine from several regions
Highs: Quiet and relaxed room, flavorful food, eager service, reasonable prices, free range hormone and antibiotic free meats
Lows: Unobtainable street parking
Bon Appétit! - W. Ego