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Once I'd gotten over my disappointment that the tandoori lamb chops I'd ordered had never found their way into the bags, I realized that I was eating some of the best Indian (and Pakistani) food I'd ever tasted, even at a remove of many miles and some time from its creation. There were chicken kofta (meatballs) heady with cumin, a wonderful buttery dish of chickpeas cooked with tamarind and coriander called kabli channa, and a highly spiced, long-cooked lamb stew. Even the rice was special, mixed with saffron and full of whole spices: bay leaves, a cinnamon stick, cloves.
When I returned for lunch with Ron and Hiya, it turned out that the tandoori chops were missable (they were dry and, I felt, disagreeably spiced, but my companions didn't agree), but I was thrilled with everything else we ordered: okra cooked with onions into what I thought was like the best ratatouille ever, creamy chicken tikka masala, and a naan as full of onion as an overstuffed pillow. The most unusual dish was haleem, which I had expected would be a pilaf of lentils and barley, but was instead a gluey, seductive paste that tasted like a divine bean dip, sprinkled with shredded fresh ginger.
Fremont, CA 94538
San Francisco, CA 94102
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
San Francisco, CA 94109
Bhuna ghost $5.95
Chicken kofta $5.95
Stewed okra $5
Murgh tikka lahori $4
Shalimar, 532 Jones (at O'Farrell), 928-0333. Open daily for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 to 11:30 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 27, 38. Noise level: moderate.
Shalimar, 1409 Polk (at California), 776-4642. Open daily for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 to 11:30 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderately difficult. Muni: 19. Noise level: moderate.
Shalimar, 3325 Walnut (at Liberty, in Walnut Park), Fremont, (510) 494-1919. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., and for dinner daily from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: low.
I was perplexed because of the difference between the food I'd had at the putative Shalimar Garden and the sparkling, exciting food at Shalimar. (I knew that Shalimar Garden was in the process of forging a new identity as Mela Tandoori Kitchen, but when I called them I sensed a strange reluctance to admit that there was new management.)
I noted that on Shalimar's menu there were two other Shalimars listed, on Polk Street and in Fremont (and "Coming Soon" in Santa Clara), but no mention of Shalimar Garden. Hmmm, I thought, while enjoying a juicy, smoky-tasting murgh tikka lahori (butterflied marinated chicken breast cooked in the tandoori oven); daal masala, with lentils so big and yellow they looked like corn kernels; the minty yogurt sauce called raita; and a much-less-oniony-this-time onion naan at the huge Fremont outpost (open just two months), tucked between an Italian restaurant and a Mexican one in an undistinguished minimall anchored by a Stewart Anderson Black Angus.
But Shalimar Garden is listed on www.shalimarsf.com, I mused, while feasting with Andrea at the Polk Street Shalimar (open six months) on more bhuna ghost (lamb stew), garlicky black-eyed beans cooked with tomatoes and yogurt, and the most delicious dish among everything I'd tried in four meals: nihari, described as a "North Indian delicacy. Fat removed beef shank cooked slowly in mixed spices. Garnished with ginger, pepper, and cilantro." It was three succulent lumps of meat swimming in a sea of dark beefy sauce, so knowingly and patiently cooked that they fell apart if you looked at them hard. This was a dish I would dream about. I added it to the imaginary list I hadn't prepared for Mr. Trillin.
I realized that the three Shalimars I had visited all were operated on the same order-at-the-counter, bare-tables model, not the fancy décor and service and white tablecloths that had pleased us more than the food at Shalimar Garden. So I called the original outpost and asked what was up. "Oh," replied the cheerful voice on the other end, "I sold it."
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