Open since May, The Menu supplanted the New Saffron restaurant. The force behind the operation is Prakash Aswani, who spent eight months reconfiguring, reconstructing and reassembling the building to suit his needs. The recipes are authentic, transplanted from around India with no specific regional pedigree. Aswani and chef Resham Singh collaborate on the menu.
"I came to the restaurant business in a roundabout way," Aswani said. "I am not a typical operator. I wanted a meeting place, an assembly, a place to feed people in a creative way. It's artisan cuisine with unique recipes from all regions of India."
Physically, the space is divided into three sections: a main dining room; a smaller dining room used for lunch, brunch and parties; and a lounge to the rear of the building, where, every Thursday, there is live jazz.
The decor does not transport one to the subcontinent. There are a few elements that evoke India. Mostly the decor suggests California, with mustardy walls (arguably saffron), a dark-tiled floor, pendant lighting and oil paintings that look like the golden hills of a California summer. There are sturdy wood chairs, linen-lined tables, and cushy banquets that line the perimeter. Overall, more upscale than I expected, but not exotic.
As a welcome, the chef sent what looked like two large crisp curlicue tortilla chips with two curry dipping sauces. Unfortunately, the waitress rattled off the food names at a staccato rate. Even asking her to repeat was not enlightening. The dipping sauces had good flavors but were thin and watery, which made them impossible to adhere to the chip.
Probably my favorite dish came first. The kale pakoda ($7) was a small platter of organic kale leaves, drenched in chickpea flour and deep-fried. The kale was light and flavorful, akin to tempura. More of the same curry dipping sauces appeared. They worked better with the kale.
Chili chicken ($10) was chunks of chicken breast marinated in chili, garlic and ginger. I understood the waitress when she asked if we wanted the dish spicy. Yes, I replied, because most "spicy" food in our local restaurants isn't remotely spicy. This was. It bit back. The chicken had been breaded and fried with additional peppers and garlic. Hot stuff. Good stuff. Warning: Have plenty of beer, water and naan on hand to mitigate the heat. I loved it.
The goat curry masala ($18) was delicious but hard to eat. The chunks of goat meat were firmly on the bone. The large dish was stew-like and had to be eaten with fingers. Messy. The flavors were a triumph, though: tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric, chili powder and cinnamon. It was spicy but not hot on the tongue.
The coconut fish curry ($16) had been cooked in coconut milk and flavored with red curry, garlic, fish, onions and tomatoes. It was a generous portion, again stew-like, and similar to the goat sauce flavors, but easier to eat.
The melt-in the-mouth onion kulcha ($4) was naan baked in the clay oven with spices and onion. I could have made a meal of a basket or two.
Bowls of rice appeared with everything, and we were asked if we needed more: a necessity for soaking up the delicious sauces, and a nice gesture.
For dessert, we tried the gajar halwa ($5), a warm, sweet combination of carrots and milk. It reminded me of a carrot bread pudding with its rather dense consistency. This is a traditional Punjabi dessert that is served warm or cold.
One evening, our waitress convinced us to try a mango lassi ($6), a tropical Indian-style smoothie made with fresh mango and yogurt. It was tasty, but she brought it with the beers we ordered, not a good combination.
The waitress was efficient and attentive, perhaps too much so. She delivered and started chatting up the dessert menus when we had not eaten half our entrees. Finally, despite her enthusiasm, she never cleared the main-course dishes. When she delivered the dessert, she merely pushed the dishes aside and made room for the dessert. Yes, it was casual dining, but the experience could have been improved.
Lunch at The Menu is a good deal for several reasons. First, the variety is excellent: 14 hot trays with meats, fish, and vegetarian dishes, plus a salad bar and house-made soup. All for $11, an easy-to-swallow price. And for those unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, this is an inexpensive way to sample a number of dishes.
2700 W. El Camino Real
Hours: Buffet lunch weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner daily 5:30-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer and wine
Corkage fee: $15
Outdoor dining: no
Private parties: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent