River of Dreams

The Ganges Restaurant
775 Frederick, 661-7290. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Reservations advised on weekends. Parking chancy. Served by the 6, 43, 66, and 71 buses and the N Judah. Front room wheelchair accessible.

It's no secret that I'm a devout omnivore. The "omni" includes vegetables, even if I usually prefer them as supporting players to, say, squids or snails or crawdaddy's tails. But when plants do take the starring dinner role, I usually prefer them in East Indian costume -- you don't miss the meat when the spicing's so rich. So once I learned that Danny's guru was Gujarati, I decided to go to the Ganges.

Danny, a local musician, spent a year studying Indian vocal music in Varanasi (formerly called Benares) with a teacher from Gujarat, a state on India's west coast just north of Bombay. He's spoken glowingly of meals served at his teacher's house, and since the Ganges features vegetarian dishes from that very region, this obviously was reason to match the friend to the food. "Well -- I ate there a few years ago and wasn't very impressed," he allowed, "but I'll try it again."

Situated in the uppermost Upper Haight (at Arguello, borderline of the innermost Inner Sunset), the Ganges is roomier inside than I'd guessed from its exterior, and handsome with rich burgundy banquettes, blond-wood tables (slightly too small to hold all the food they serve you), and Indian fabric-art in several styles on the walls. One short step up, at the back, is a room with floor cushions, low tables, and Hindu sculptures radiating good vibes from a shoulder-high shelf.

The owner, a man of certain years, briefed us on the clever menu code: The dishes currently available are those with little burgundy stick-on dots next to the names. The menu also divides pure vegan dishes from those made with dairy products. The combination dinner, including chutneys, relishes, dal (lentils), rice, the veg curry du jour, and a choice of appetizer, main dish, and dessert, goes for $14.50. As we squinted at the menu under the very subdued lighting, a waitress in an embroidered dress brought us room-temperature pappadums (deep-fried cracker bread, more typically served still hot), along with tiny cups of scintillating house-made fruit chutneys, pickles, and relishes, including raita, an indispensable mixture of yogurt and shredded cucumber. "Tastes like the same old thin yogurt," my companion, TJ, muttered. "Save it," I told him. "With luck, you'll need it later."

Danny asked the waitress in Hindi whether any menu items were Gujarati specialties. "Well, it's a Gujarati restaurant," she shrugged. Overhearing, the owner returned to chat with this phenomenon, a blue-eyed Hindi-speaker. A Gujarati reared in Africa, he'd lived in London and then Bombay before emigrating to escape the latter's overcrowding, he divulged. Responding to his questions, Danny summarized his Indian travels, and I mentioned the month or so I'd spent in Sri Lanka and Southern India some years ago. Taking our drink orders, of the three Indian beers in stock the owner recommended Flying Horse. One sip (flat, malty-flavored water) was enough for each of us and we switched to zesty Kingfisher.

"I need something spicy tonight," said Danny, ordering the chile pakoda appetizer. "That is the spiciest dish on the menu," the owner cautioned, in vain. The pakodas proved to be small, semihot chiles, coated in garbanzo-flour batter, stuffed, and deep-fried. As I masticated peacefully, I watched both men explode -- turning bug-eyed, gulping whole glasses of water and beer, TJ guzzling raita straight from the cup. "They often put little surprises in," gasped Danny. Purely by chance, I'd picked the one pakoda lacking the scorching surprise. We also tried a special, a medium-hot fritter of spinach, onion, and fenugreek leaf called goti. Dhokla, our third appetizer, was a weighty cube of chewy chickpea-pone.

Of the main courses, we enjoyed the "vegetable of the day," a thin, savory stew of potatoes and zucchini. "This is basically what I ate every day in India," Danny said. "Substitute greens for zucchini, and it's what I had, too," I said. The best entree consisted of baked bananas with a brilliant stuffing of coconut, cilantro, and vivid spices. But the saag paneer was the worst version we'd ever tasted, a bitter green spinach puree dotted with browned, hardened cheese cubes resembling overcooked tofu. More palatable was asparagus in a garbanzo-thickened yogurt sauce, which overwhelmed the vegetable but proved an agreeable dip for the chapatis (sauteed flatbreads).

"This sauce, specifically, is what Hindi-speakers call 'curry' -- gari," said Danny. "It's a very specific dish, based on yogurt and these specific seasonings. There are four R's in Hindi, each pronounced differently. The closest the British could come to it was 'curry.' Whereas in Hindi, each of the dishes that we lump together as 'curry' has its own name, describing what's in it -- dopiaza for onions, tamatar for tomatoes, ghosht masala for meat with a mixture of spices."

"Hold on -- I thought curry was a specific spice," said poor TJ, whose head was spinning, this being the third or fourth Indian meal of his life.

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