Mysteriously, Fans Flock to Overrated "Breads of India"
By Lisa Tsering
(portions have appeared in the East Bay Express and on Microsoft's SF-Sidewalk.com)
In Hindi, I remarked that although the chicken was too salty, the dal didn't seem to have any salt at all. After politely listening and nodding, the Breads of India waiter replied in Hindi: Mix them together, then.
What is the reason for the epidemic of bad Indian restaurants in the Bay Area? Is it the fact that many restaurant owners here were not restaurant owners in India, and that the cooks are rarely trained chefs; just average guys doing a day's job? The quality of Indian restaurants here has stayed poor-to-mediocre because we, the customers, put up with it. Sure, there are exceptions: Vik's continues to produce good, cheap fare; and Gaylord's, at the other end of the spectrum, is pretty dependable. Both of those restaurants are distinguished by caring and genuinely attentive service.
A recent visit to this well-reviewed Berkeley hot spot, though, encapsulated everything that's wrong with the Indian food scene in the Bay Area.
The descriptions of Breads of India's dishes, printed on a daily-changing menu, range from the flowery to the downright enough-already. It took longer to read the description of Murgh-e-Khaz, a cashew and chicken curry, than to wait for its arrival. My fantasies of a chef lovingly poring over each ingredient ("our own 16-spice masala") were immediately dashed, replaced with the awareness that the unappetizing substance I was now looking at was fresh off a steam table.
The butter naan (at $1.95!) had only the merest whisper of butter glistening on its surface. Neither the naan nor the aloo kulcha (tandoori bread with potato) had enough salt, and I'm talking about a cuisine notorious for its liberal use of it. The accompanying "vegetable" was a watery dal. And I guess the reason they serve rice at all (uninspired, with a cursory sprinkling of cuminseed ) is to appease American customers who expect rice with every Indian meal, even though the bread is meant to serve as the accompanying starch. In many Indian restaurants in India, it's considered redundant to serve dal with meat, as it is bread with rice.
The mango lassi, though, had an authentic aftertaste of kewra (an extract of screwpine) with an exotic floral flavor. The most egregious affront to the palate, however, was the "chai." Throughout North India, it's brewed in a variety of ways: sometimes with ginger, sometimes with cardamom seeds, sometimes with black pepper, sometimes just plain. What's basic is the "mamri" tea (a granulated loose black tea), rich milk and generous sugar, and the all-important boiling process. Properly made, the milky blend will erupt to the top of the pan, and the foam will subside only after the pan is whisked off the fire.
I have an unreasonable passion for chai, and have observed chai-wallahs work their magic from Varanasi to Bombay. I have watched in dismay as the American version - a watery, soy-milked, neo-hippie brew - has grown in popularity. This has made me want to shake the barristas at Starbucks by their lapels.
So when I read Breads of India's description of a classic blend with "chhote elaichi" (cardamom), lovingly brewed one cup at a time, I looked forward to it as the only possible saving grace after a disappointing meal.
But the Breads of India version is wrong from first glance. The color, instead of an inviting and fragrant creamy light brown, is reminiscent of Sanka packets mixed with 1 percent milk at a church-basement AA meeting. It's not quite hot. And it seems to say, "yes, I was born of a Lipton teabag," and of a cursory dip at that.
The hostess said, with a sniff, that it's "the way tea is brewed in North India." Perhaps she meant to say "North Indiana." Of course, there was a line of people outside waiting to get in.
Yeah, it was only around $30 wasted. But if we all continue to throw good money at bad, indifferent restaurants, we will only deserve what's coming to us. As on the Ganges' teeming shores, there seems to be a limitless supply of warm bodies, and today an endless supply of disappointing restaurants exists to cater to them. It's up to you and me to keep searching for the good ones.