By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri KrasovIn the multitude of good restaurants that serve Indian cuisine in the Bay Area Ajanta Restaurant in Berkeley is a standout. The bountiful all-region Indian fare served here is so remarkable that people frequent the establishment on all occasions – from a weekday family dinner to a sweet 16 birthday, and don’t mind standing in line for that.
The acclaimed restaurant’s chef/owner Lachu Moorjani recently introduced a nightly Chef's Tasting Menu, inspired by the venue’s 2013 Zagat Survey food rating (27 on a 30-point scale). The new abridged menu provides a glimpse of the diversity of Ajanta’s offerings that make this place so irresistible.
Seasonal tandoori appetizers include an array of Ajanta specials. Meaty slices of organic Portobello mushroom are served with a dollop of sweet and hot yogurt-cashew-mint sauce. Plump juicy Dayboat scallops are marinated in yogurt and spices, roasted in a tandoor oven, and served with a pleasantly tart yogurt-cashew-tamarind sauce.
For chicken chaat, organic chicken marinated meat is grilled in tandoor, then shredded and tossed with oil, lime juice, red onions, cilantro, and ginger – a cold dish spiced hot.
The main dishes section contains four perennially popular entrees. Chicken Mulligatawney, a South-Indian classic curry from Chennai, is made with organic chicken meat – boneless and cooked in a sauce with onions, ginger, garlic, coconut milk, lime juice, and spices. This satisfying soup-stew hybrid that can serve as a full meal on its own.
Succulent Lamb Rib Chops are marinated in yogurt and spices and grilled in tandoor to reddish-golden color and perfectly smoky flavor.
Green Fish Curry from Mumbai has ling cod fillet simmered in a sauce made with cilantro, mint, onions, garlic, green chili, coconut milk, cashew powder, lime juice, and spices. A plateful of fragrant curry is enlivened by a sprinkling of yogurt, cashews and cilantro.
Achari Baingan from Rajasthan is made of an organic Chinese eggplant sautéed and then cooked in a tomato sauce with ginger, garlic, lime juice, and Indian pickling spices, like fenugreek and nigella. Any dish can be prepared mild, medium, or hot and spicy, and speaking of pickling spices, the Chef’s Tasting Menu comes with a cup of sharp and sweet house-made pickled carrots.
Other accompaniments include assorted hot pickles from a trusted vendor, mango chutney, basmati rice, and hot from the oven freshly-baked naan.
The spicy menu is well supported by the substantial international wine list, with a number of vintages from India. By-the-glass selection boasts some interesting choices – whites, like 2011 Edelzwicker from Mendocino County – a blend of Riesling, gewürztraminer, and pinot gris; 2010 Alta Luna pino grigio from Terentino, Italy, and 2011 Villa Maria sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, and reds – 2010 M. Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone (a biodynamic product from France); California 2010 Double Decker blend of cab, petite syrah and barbera, and 2011 Red Diamond malbec from Argentina.
Desserts from the Chef’s Tasting Menu present a choice of kulfi, cardamom gelato, mango sorbet or gulab jamun (milk powder ball, fried and soaked in rose-scented syrup). As Chef Lachu points out in his famous cookbook, Ajanta: Regional Feasts of India, “The mere mention of kulfi makes Indians salivate,” and for a good reason. This Northern-Indian incredibly light and delicate dessert is made of milk, cream, cardamom, sugar, and flavored with saffron and pistachios – a great finale to a flavorful feast.
The Ajanta dining room features design components and artwork inspired by Ajanta caves, a World Heritage Site located in the central Indian state of Maharashtra. Paintings on the walls depict cave artwork, and light box fixtures with translucent shades on the ceiling bare photo-images from the caves.
The Chef's Tasting Menu is served from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. every night and priced at $27.00 ($24.00 for the vegetarian offering). It includes three appetizers and four main dishes, sides of rice, naan bread, chutneys and pickles and a choice of dessert.
This Sunday: Easter Dining at Ajanta
On Easter Sunday, March 31, Ajanta Restaurant will be open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. serving a regularly priced Chef’s Tasting Menu.
Ajanta Restaurant is located at 1888 Solano Avenue in Berkeley, California. The restaurant is open daily for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Call for reservations 510-526-4373 or visit www.AjantaRestaurant.com.
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