A Walk on the Mild Side

Sweet beats heat on Rasoi's Indian menu

Rasoi, with its high ceilings, lethargic overhead fans, and dreamy soundtrack of sitar music, seems like the sort of place that should be hot and dusty, like much of India itself. (The name means "eat" in Indian.) Instead it's yet another entry on the Valencia Street corridor, a strip so choked with restaurants these days that other sorts of businesses are starting to look out of place.

This is good news for restaurants; hungry people know to go there. (It's like the big-city version of the food court at a suburban mall.) The bad part is that it's hard to attract the attention of undecided diners studying a streetscape of menus and debating among themselves.

Rasoi at least has an arresting name. (Is there a major American city without a Standard India, Gaylord India, Star India, or Scenic India?) If that isn't enough, management has framed the front windows with twinkling lights that look like leftover Christmas decorations. They're a bit garish, but one notices all the same, and that's the point.

Diners lured inside by the name or the lights or the promise of Indian food will find a dining room broadening attractively away from the street. The large bar is virtually invisible from the front windows, and many of the tables are set deep inside, where it seems warmer and closer, and the street traffic scarcely registers.

Rasoi opened last year with the promise of "Indian food with a new attitude" -- a pale rhyme that implied (at least to me) spiciness. But unlike, say, Indian Oven in the Lower Haight, where dishes reach the table practically glowing with hot curry and pepper, Rasoi's preparations are noticeably mild, and more likely to be sweet than hot.

The mango chutney that accompanied the complimentary pappadam, for instance, was dominated by the tropical intensity of the fruit and only lightly touched with heat. (The pappadam themselves were lovely: crisp and light wafers of lentil paste with the faintest sheen of oil from the deep fryer. They were better than any tortilla chip.)

The khuli roti ($5.95) too -- an Indian-style pizza and one of the few fusion-style items on the menu -- was topped with a well-behaved mix of tandoori chicken chunks, mushrooms, green peppers, and cilantro. The crust was well-blistered nan: puffy but tender and a surprisingly good base for the toppings.

The pizza suggested to me that Indian food is adaptable. Rasoi's menu for the most part resembles the menu of every other Indian restaurant in town, but at least the kitchen is willing to take a few chances. Given the success of the pizza, can a pastalike noodle dish be far behind? Innovative cooking need not be the prerogative of the big-marquee places.

The menu offered 10 vegetarian courses, but not our beloved sag paneer -- the spinach dish laced with chunks of mild white cheese. When we asked, we were told it was available ($6.95). It turned out to be slightly sweet rather than fiery with curry -- a kind and gentle turn that did not seem to do justice to the cheese.

A fragrant sweetness also permeated the kadahi gosht hussainee ($8.95), a lamb curry with green peppers, tomatoes, and onions (the better part of a ratatouille) and an almond cream sauce. The cubes of meat were tender with the thorough, moist cooking, like pot roast.

In a world of chicken dishes, none is better than tandoori murgh ($7.95), and Rasoi's, a half-bird marinated in yogurt, spices, and lemon juice before charcoal grilling, was as good as it gets. The meat was juicy and tender and just slightly smoky.

Service at Rasoi can be sluggish, and the kitchen sometimes has problems in spacing things out, so that too many dishes arrive at once. After a long wait on one visit, our server finally arrived laden like a beast of burden with dishes almost too numerous to set on our little table.

But on another visit, service was smooth and timing precise, with appetizers arriving only minutes after we'd ordered them, and not too long a wait for the main dishes. Despite its coriander and ginger, we found the aloo tikki ($2.50) to be flat. The latkelike potato patties (with onion and green peas) also appeared to have been kept warm for a time instead of being served straight from the fryer; they were spongy and not quite hot.

The jingha til tinka ($4.50), on the other hand, were marvelous: prawns marinated in mace and cardamom-flavored yogurt, coated with sesame seeds (which made an appealing crust) and grilled on skewers. The shrimp had the al dente texture that results from freshness and skillful cooking.

The menu offered several versions of biryani, which turned out to be a paella-like plate of basmati rice cooked with a medley of vegetables and legumes and a choice of meat (or no meat). The vegetable version ($5.95) included carrots, peanuts, green peas, and raisins -- the last lending the dish a distinctive, deep sweetness. Lamb biryani ($6.95) added chunks of wonderfully succulent meat to the mix and, we all agreed, was worth the extra dollar. Both dishes were so big that we couldn't finish them.

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