Small World

An exceptionally pleasant setting for fresh Indian fare in the ever-evolving Mission

"It's not easy to park around there," I said, somewhat automatically, to Peter, after he'd not only agreed to join me for dinner at a new Indian restaurant on Guerrero near 22nd Street, but also offered to drive. This was preparatory to offering to pay for parking in a nearby garage, but Peter would have none of it: "I used to live at that corner," he said, establishing his neighborhood credentials. (Though I wasn't quite clear why his familiarity with the block a decade ago would make parking there any easier. Although I'm constantly assured that the parking situation in San Francisco isn't as bad as it was a few years ago, I'm so skittish that I occasionally find myself grabbing a spot a number of blocks before I should even start looking. I get too excited, too early; I call this premature exhilaration.)

After a brief exchange concerning addresses, it turns out that Peter lived in the very same building that houses Essence of India, which a colleague had tipped as tasty and cheap, as well as new. Whether it's because of Peter's knowledge of the area or just parking karma, we slide into a spacious spot, no parallel parking skills required, right around the corner. As we walk down 22nd, Anita points out the original location of Good Vibrations; she once lived in the neighborhood, too.

Peter has seized upon the opportunity to deliver a present to a friend who still lives in the old apartment. He's cradling a somewhat alarming souvenir, a metal pen stand featuring the Texas Book Depository made notorious by the JFK assassination. "Did you check out what it's worth on eBay?" I ask, somewhat automatically. "No," he says, "I've never seen one before." "I have," I say, recalling the astonishing tiny-buildings collection I once saw in an architecture writer's house, which had colonized every flat surface not used for sitting or lying down. It even filled one of his bathtubs. The Dealey Plaza pen stand was one of his prizes.

Rare Bird: An Indian place that's inexpensive 
and elegant?
Anthony Pidgeon
Rare Bird: An Indian place that's inexpensive and elegant?

Location Info

Map

Essence of India

1007 Guerrero St.
San Francisco, CA 94110-2930

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights

Details

282-6444

Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: moderately difficult

Muni: 26, 48

Noise level: low

Aloo gobi $5.95

Chana masala $5.95

Vindi bhaji $6.95

Mixed tandoori grill $14.95

Lamb bhuna $9.95

Cheese naan $2.50

Kheer $3

1007 Guerrero (at 22nd Street)

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"You'll get a kick out of the apartment," Anita says, as we wait for the door to open. Kick is an understatement: I don't just feel real estate lust for the high-ceilinged rooms, I'm dazzled by their contents. The place is like a highly selective yet overwhelming museum of popular culture, and there's too much to take in. I'm especially taken by a dense, beautifully arranged display of dozens, maybe hundreds, of little plastic figures, featuring robots, superheroes, and oddities. In another room, there's an even more entrancing display of small figures, but these ones were created by their friend Paul, a multitalented artist who has added disturbing and humorous elements to the miniatures. I immediately covet a tiny, busty Madonna moodily contemplating a floating hot dog. Paul declines our offer of dinner; he's working on a painting, and his girlfriend will be expecting a meal when she comes over in a couple of hours.

A heretofore unseen flatmate emerges from a room that seems to my Alice-in-Wonderland eyes even more high-ceilinged than the rest of the apartment; it's completely lined with books. We're introduced, and I think his name is Al. He urges Peter and Anita to come see him in a show he's been doing in a local bar: "Time is running out. The place is up for sale. On eBay." The penny drops; this isn't Al, but Hal, whose "Ask Dr. Hal" act at the Odeon has been touted to me repeatedly by another colleague.

When we ask Dr. Hal to join us at dinner, he, too, is otherwise engaged. So it's just the three of us who sit down at an immaculately white-linened table downstairs. The walls are painted in a golden, uneven treatment that decorators often use to evoke Tuscany, and the two sculptural hanging light fixtures could be in any hip modern space, but India is conjured, discreetly, by a few carefully displayed silver and brass decorations, including two animal statues tucked into a niche above the entrance. I especially like the long banquette upholstered in a gold-embroidered burgundy plush. It's very comfy, as well as calm and soothing, and we're impressed.

"This used to be a stationery store," Peter says, "and the owners lived in the back." "They sold other things, too," Anita says, reminiscing; at the closeout sale, she'd purchased a Bible with a mother-of-pearl cover, which she regrets having giving away "in a fit of generosity." (I refrain from asking whether she'd checked it out on eBay.) Peter relates the subsequent gastronomic history of this address: a pricey French place called Le Trou; the Moa Room, with a chef from New Zealand; an early showcase for Lance Dean Velasquez, who now cooks at Home; and Neo, when the room was all-white.

The menu looks like a greatest-hits rendition of Indian and Pakistani fare: samosas, pakoras, many tandoori items, and a dozen vegetable dishes. Assorted curries (the spicy vindaloo, creamy korma, spinachy sagwala, fried bhuna) are offered with a choice of chicken, lamb, or prawns. A section called "chef's recommendation" includes chicken and lamb tikka masala and scallop korma.

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