At a party recently, a friend attacked what has always been, for me, a sacred cow: big flavor.
“Any cook can produce a lot of flavor,” he said. “All he has to have is a heavy hand with the seasoning.”
I gulped uneasily: I have occasionally been heavy of hand. Also, he made a good point: If you use the best ingredients, you won't have to do much to them. They'll speak for themselves.
Still, there's nothing like the occasional firestorm of spice to stimulate the senses, and for that there's nothing like Indian food. We tend to think “curry” when we think Indian, but in fact curry has no fixed meaning; it exists, one way or another, in a host of Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. And to describe the rich complexity of Indian spices as “curry” is like calling a symphony “sound.”
Indian Oven, in the Lower Haight, doesn't look like an Indian restaurant. Behind its modest storefront windows (and a bright-red neon sign) are distressed pastel walls and an open, stainless-steely kitchen that give it the look of a smart trattoria. (My first impression: This is a baby Mangiafuoco, the hot Italian spot on Guerrero Street.) But the smell of the food — that rich, heady aroma — is unmistakable: It seems to flow through the nose straight to one's stomach.
(It also reminds me of London, where some neighborhoods are fragrant with Indian cooking; it's about the only reliably tasty food you can get in the British Isles. Once I climbed into the back of one of those proper London taxis and knew, with one whiff, what the driver had eaten for lunch.)
The maitre d' seated us at a table for two — set rather formally, with a white-linen cloth, handsome plates, and wine glasses — but we ordered so many dishes that he soon relocated us to a larger table nearby.
A starter plate ($3.50) — with samosas, vegetable pakoras, and pappadam — arrived only a minute or two after we'd ordered it. The crinkly wafers of pappadam (made from lentil paste) still glistened slightly with oil from the deep fryer. The samosas, like little spring rolls stuffed with potatoes and peas, were well-crisped though a little bland; the pakoras (julienned zucchini dipped in chick-pea batter and fried) were uglier but tastier.
Indian chefs, even more than French, celebrate the lentil. The pappadam was so good — like eating exotic chips and salsa without the salsa and not even missing it — that we ordered another batch while waiting for the dal soup ($2), a thick broth choked with bits of mustard-colored lentils.
The broth was the only apparent difference between the soup and the dal ($6.95), a side dish substantial enough to make up an entire meal. Indian lentils can turn mushier faster than the small, green French variety (lentilles du Puy), but Indian Oven's kitchen cooked them just past al dente. They were almost creamy, but they retained enough individual identity to lend texture.
The rest of the vegetable side dishes were equally ample — and tasty. Sag paneer ($6.95) was like spicy creamed spinach laced with chunks of mild, white cheese that reminded me of fresh mozzarella. I've had sag paneer that was so strongly seasoned I couldn't taste the spinach; Indian Oven's version tastes distinctly of the greens. And the channa masala ($6.95), chick peas cooked with onions and tomatoes, had a welcome hint of sweetness.
The restaurant is the sort of place where vegetarians and carnivores can commingle, even at the same table, without much friction: The menu offers, unobtrusively, a wide variety of dishes without animal flesh — and a wide variety of dishes with.
From the tandoor (the wood-burning clay oven) came a medley of meats collected on a single sizzling plate ($12.95) garnished with julienned green peppers and slices of onion. Both the prawns and the lamb (cubed and minced) were fine, but it was the lowly chicken that took the prize.
The long marination — in yogurt, lemon juice, and spices — thoroughly scented the meat and kept it moist, while the high heat of the tandoor crisped the outside so nicely we barely noticed that the skin was missing. The meat all but fell from the bones — which were all that remained once we had finished.
Tandoori has to be one of the best ways to prepare chicken, and Indian Oven's rendition is among the best I've had. Even if the restaurant offered nothing else, the tandoori chicken would be worth a trip. But the kitchen does put out a wealth of other dishes — chicken vindaloo, for example ($8.95), cubes of potato and boneless chicken in a dark, spicy sauce. In its oblong crock, it was like a mysterious coq au vin — familiar yet not. (Certainly spicier.) We ate it all while thinking that it didn't quite match its tandoori cousin.
Better was the jhinga masala ($9.95), big prawns in a bright adobe sauce we eagerly mopped up with chunks of naan ($1.25), the nicely blistered flat bread that resembles a giant pita. There was something sweet in the masala sauce that made a nice match with the faint sweetness of the prawns; after devouring the dish, we sat there sadly regarding the empty plate, wondering how it had disappeared quite so swiftly. Consolation nibbles at the goat-cheese naan ($3.50), which was stuffed with scallions and bell peppers and topped with the cheese, helped a little.
Our server, who had brought all the dishes with perfectly timed regularity and kept the water glasses full without our asking, was impressed that we had eaten so much of, if not all, the food we'd ordered. If he thought we were avaricious, he was too polite to say so. Perhaps he thought we achieved a state of grace by not stuffing ourselves with dessert.
Indian Oven belongs to its eclectic neighborhood, but it's good enough to be a destination restaurant. With its glamorously understated decor, precise service, and superior cooking, it raises the standard of Indian restaurants in the city.
Indian Oven, 233 Fillmore, S.F., 626-1628. Open daily, 5-11 p.m.