A signature dish is both a benefit and a handicap for a chef. On one hand, a well-known menu item provides word-of-mouth and gives customers who fall in love with it a reason to keep coming back. On the other, it means that the dish is destined to stay on the menu more or less forever and, to some chefs, serves as an impediment to creativity and spontaneity.
Not Guddu Haider. The chef/owner of the Pakistani restaurant Guddu de Karahi in the Outer Sunset opened his new spot seven weeks ago, after selling his much-beloved Lahore Karahi in the Tenderloin in May 2012 because of family trouble in Pakistan. There was much weeping and rending of garments when Haider departed Lahore Karahi, and much rejoicing when he re-emerged on the S.F. restaurant scene, most of it due to one dish: the tandoori fish. At his new spot, he's giving fans what they want.
His signature tandoori fish still lives up to the hype. Luscious hunks of boneless tilapia come to the table sizzling on an iron platter among onions and peppers, exuding fragrant steam that envelopes you like a spice-tinged sauna. The fish soaks up the smoke from the tandoor oven, as well as the flavors of its coriander, chile, and yogurt crust, but the seafood's delicate flavor somehow also manages to shine through. The flesh is moist, and the parts of it in contact with the platter create delightfully crusty, blackened bits. The whole time I was eating it, I was primally, uncomplicatedly happy.
But then again, nearly every dish I tried at Guddu de Karahi made me swoon. The curries and vegetable dishes have the kind of inscrutable, layered, unfolding complexity you find in Indian and Pakistani dishes that make you appreciate the cuisine all the more, and make you vow to stop wasting time on lesser iterations, like random delivery via GrubHub and microwaved palak paneer from Trader Joe's. The fact that the most expensive dish on this menu tops out at $13, which means that a group can feast to its heart's content and likely get out of there for less than $100, adds to the charm.
A close runner-up for best dish is the karahi chicken: hunks of white meat in a rich, oily sauce with tomatoes, spears of ginger, onions, and a panoply of Southeast Asian spices that added up to one of the best chicken dishes I've had, full stop. I'd interrupt conversations to tell friends to try it, and then watch with alarm as it disappeared. I don't usually get territorial about restaurant dishes, but this one I wanted to take home for some private one-on-one time.
Over and over, Haider proved he has a way with protein. Lamb vindaloo featured big, soft chunks of lamb in a tomato sauce. At first bite it's all sweetness, then you get a hit of the lamb flavor, and finally, the spice, which lingers on the tongue, flavors unspooling as you let it sit there. The only disappointment was the dry chicken boti, boneless marinated pieces grilled and roasted in the tandoor. It wasn't terrible — the soft tandoori spice still came through in the yogurt-based sauce — but sagged in comparison to everything else.
Vegetarian dishes weren't as hit-you-over-the-head good, but offer subtle, good-tasting counterpoints to the menu's standouts. Saag paneer, the Pakistani answer to creamed spinach, was lush, velvety, and just spicy enough, while the bengan bhartha paired smoky eggplant with cream and chopped onions for a comforting, familiar flavor not unlike Middle Eastern baba ganoush. Daal masala was like other versions of the standard daal I'd had, but punched up with clove and cinnamon, as though it too were getting ready for the holiday season. (This idea was taken to a weird extreme with the Kashmiri naan, stuffed with raisins, nuts, cheese, and cherries — it sounded intriguing in theory, but in practice reminded me of a Pakistani take on fruitcake.)
Guddu de Karahi is no-frills, which means there is no liquor license, the décor is unassuming and utilitarian, and the service is lackadaisical and sometimes confused by the language barrier. But the entire staff is nice and well-meaning, there's complimentary chai and sweet mango lassis, and everyone in the restaurant seemed very happy to be there, bathing in the afterglow of the tandoori fish. If the dish were to disappear again, I'd be in the mob, forks and knives in hand, demanding Haider's return to the kitchen. Even a third time around, I don't think he'd mind.