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By John Birdsall
It begins quite innocuously: At 5:27 p.m., the door to Breads of India swings open. A man steps out, affixes a list to the front window, and then steps back inside.
A tiny gift box of a restaurant set amidst the simple, unadorned homes of the Berkeley flatlands, the place isn't completely spare -- red tapestries cover walls painted with blue elephants, a dark wood lattice separates a small dining room from the kitchen, and there's a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha, remover of obstacles and elephant-headed son of the Lord of Cosmic Destruction -- but then again, Breads of India doesn't exactly define opulence, either, especially when, at 5:28, it sits empty, everything quiet except for the soft lilt of a flute.
Four waiters stand in a bunch near the counter, looking impassive, even bored. If anything about this scene impresses them, they keep it entirely to themselves. And why should they be impressed? After all, restaurants always start out empty, and Breads of India is no exception, though the abundance of free seats might seem like a miracle to anyone familiar with the operation.
Berkeley, CA 94707
1358 N. Main
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
Region: Walnut Creek and East
Punjabi naan: $1.95
Mango lassi: $2.50
Kerala kootu: $6.50/$8.50 for two people
Muragh anaari: $7.50
Tikka lazbaab: $10.95
Junglee muragh kebab: $10.95
Gulab jamun: $2.50
At 5:35, the first customer -- perhaps a professor, by the cut of his beard -- strolls in. Given a choice, he selects a table smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant and begins shuffling through a stack of papers. Next come a man and woman in their 30s, who opt to sit toward the rear, followed by another couple and their young son, who don't sit at all but stand near the counter and order takeout. A few minutes pass, and nothing happens, and then the boy has a thought and decides to share it with the world. "This is a restaurant," says his mother. "Don't shout." The four waiters, still impassive, probably agree.
And so it goes: Friends and lovers, acquaintances and colleagues, bureaucrats and gadflies walk in and take their seats until there are no more seats to be taken. But still, they keep coming, now filling the sidewalk -- dreamers and cynics, lovers of poetry, business owners, students, generous tippers, terrible drivers, overachievers, allergy sufferers, and armchair philosophers who hold no illusions about eating immediately. Like everyone else, these new arrivals sign the list and wait as the crowd swells to a dozen and counting. And back inside, those four waiters don't look so bored anymore, and the place hums with conversation and the clink of forks against plates and the sweet sizzle of tandoor-roasted meat.
To me, nothing could speak more highly of a restaurant than the ritual detailed above, a more or less daily migration that stems not from the service at Breads of India (no-nonsense, occasionally brusque) or the ambience (pleasant, but nothing to write home about), but the food. Drawn from a recipe collection of more than 300 entrees and 115 fresh-cooked breads, the menu offers exactly five of each per day, plus a handful of alcohol-free drinks, a traditional raita, two desserts, and that's it.
The simplicity ends there. For example, when my friend Bob and I ordered the tikka lazbaab, we got this: breasts of free-range chicken pounded flat with a mallet, then marinated overnight in a blend of yogurt, tandoor-roasted ginger, royal cumin, powdered mace flowers, allspice, ginger juice, sugar cane vinegar, and, for the heck of it, more than two dozen additional spices. Roasted to a succulent crispness in a mesquite charcoal-fired tandoor oven, eight tangy knobs of yellow-orange chicken arrived on a sizzling-hot skillet over a bed of sweet red onions, accompanied by a small, undressed salad, basmati rice, mint chutney, an optional side of "flavorful" curry sauce (the best $2.50 I ever spent) and a likewise optional Punjabi naan garnished with fresh mint and coriander seeds.
Two bites later, I decided the tikka lazbaab was the best tandoori chicken I'd ever had: Tender, juicy meat, oven-fresh naan, cool, silky raita, and savory, nutty-sweet curry offered an endlessly complex interplay of texture, temperature, color, and flavor. Unfortunately, chances are I'll never enjoy it again -- since the entrees change daily, one could return a dozen times and never find tikka lazbaab on the menu.
There are a few constants, though, such as the sweet lassi and the mango lassi, smooth, luscious, yogurt-based drinks stirred with rose water and sugar, and the milk- and cardamom-rich chai tea, all of which come highly recommended. One must also order a side of lightly cumin-spiced raita, which will want to be everywhere, and, as the name of the restaurant implies, one must order bread: naan, paratha, kulcha, or chapati, stuffed or garnished with everything from daikon radish to red onions to peas to potatoes to grated coconut to, my personal favorite thus far, melon seeds.
Beyond that, every visit introduces customers to a brand-new septet of spice-rich dishes from across India, each explained in exacting detail on the menu and paired with its own fresh-cooked bread. There are two vegetarian choices, probably stewed, such as the ratatouille-tasting kerala kootu (zucchini, cashews, ginger, tomatoes, and tamarind), the palak sarson ke aloo (a mild, airy purée of spinach and red potatoes), the saffron-enhanced mughlai sabzi (red bell peppers, carrots, blue lake green beans, potatoes, taro root, mushrooms, eggplant, puffed lotus seeds, tomatoes, red onions, garlic, and ginger), or the mushroom-sweet sabzi jhalfrezi (bell peppers, purple onions, green beans, cauliflower, baby carrots, mushrooms, potatoes, mango, lotus root, red onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, hot chiles, and a hint of malt vinegar, and no, you don't taste all the ingredients).