Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Dinner @ Amber Dhara, Palo Alto

Wednesday night, we tried out the new Amber Dhara in Palo Alto.  Amber is a small chain of indian restaurants around the bay area. My favorite indian food in the area is at their Mountain View location, which serves traditional indian fare. Their San Francisco restaurant is more upscale and more fusiony, and generally pretty good as well, although I recently had a horrible experience there.  So I was pretty excited to check out this new location, which promised to be even more contemporary, even though initial Yelp reviews have been pretty negative. They boil down to 3 main complaints: 1) It isn't Junnoon! (the restaurant it replaced). 2) The menu isn't the same as the other locations! 3) It is expensive! (These people have clearly never dined in San Francisco). I wasn't worried about any of these things, as I didn't love Junnoon, I was excited by the contemporary menu, and prices looked more than reasonable to me.

The menu certainly did not resemble that of any other indian restaurant I've been to. It was a combination of re-invented classics (like the "3 saag & paneer" with 3 different types of greens instead of just spinach and topped with dried cranberries or the "deconstructed butter chicken") or Californian/american dishes with indian flavors applied (like the seared scallops appetizer).

The interior was fairly upscale, but I was more than comfortable in jeans. Service was fine.

The mains were much better than the appetizers, which were good, but nothing standout. The desserts were not very good. The cheesy bread was the runaway winner.  See individual photos below for full reviews.

In summary, I'm glad I ignored the yelpers, as I enjoyed my experience at Amber Dhara and would gladly go back. I won't go out of my way to go there, but it was definitely an interesting spin on indian food, with decent quality ingredients, decent cooking execution, and decent spicing. If you go, get the butter chicken and the cheesy bread. Mmmm ... the cheesy bread. Maybe it is worth going out of my way for ...
Goda Spice-Crusted Scallops: moong lentil kichdi, basil & almond chutney.
A lot of upscale Californian places serve scallops over risotto, this was Amber's indian fusion take on that dish.

This dish was just ok. The scallops seemed like they had been seared a while before and just reheated at serving time, as they didn't have a nice crust and the inside was cooked through too much. The scallops themselves were mediocre quality, certainly not bad, but not sweet and flavorful.

The basil and almond chutney was fine, but didn't really add anything.

I liked the moong lentil kichdi, it was sorta like a nice comforting rice-a-roni :)
Trio of Tandoori Paneer: sun dried tomato, hazelnut cilantro, & malai, chili garlic chutney, salad.
Each big chunk of paneer had a different coating on it. Each was interesting, but I liked the reddest one the most (I think this was the sun dried tomato), although most people at the table liked the green one (hazelnut cilantro). These were well grilled but still kinda boring.

Because each piece was flavored so strongly, I didn't really understand why it came with the chili garlic chutney, which completely overpowered the flavorings in the paneer.

Salad was light and refreshing.
Deconstructed Butter Chicken - white meat tandoori chicken, butter sauce, kasoori methi dust, fried banana chips.
Winning dish of the night.

The Amber chain is known for their butter chicken. At all of the other restaurants, it is a more traditional preparation with shredded chicken. I thought this was much, much better. You get all the deliciousness of the butter chicken sauce AND the flavorful tandoori grilled chicken, all in one. And if you have read enough of my reviews by now, you know how much I LOVE SAUCES!!!

The sauce seemed exactly the same as all of the other Amber locations: DELICIOUS and addicting.

The chicken was moist, had a nice char on the outside, and had great tandoori flavor.

I didn't even notice the "kasoori methi dust" until I looked back at the photo, seems forgettable and a little ridiculous.

I liked the fried banana chips, but no one else seemed to. I just used them as another thing to dunk into the delicious sauce.
Lal Mirch Blue Nose Bass Tikka - Tandoor roasted, degi chilies, garlic chutney, house salad.
Wow, this looks ugly :)

This was pretty good. The fish had nice roasted flavor and was pretty moist. The salad was the same one that came with the paneer appetizer, light, refreshing, nicely dressed. The garlic chutney dipping sauce surprisingly didn't do much for me, I thought the fish was flavorful enough on its own.
Bharleli Vangi - Maharastrian style stuffed baby eggplant, peanuts, tamarind.
Blurry photo :(

Under all that sauce is baby eggplants. The eggplant flavors was completely overwhelmed by the sauce, it was very hard to tell what you were eating. The sauce was incredibly thick, more like peanut butter than sauce.

I love peanuts, I love eggplant, but this didn't really work for me at all.
Three Saag & Paneer - cottage cheese, mustard, Swiss chard & spinach, topped with dried cranberries.
More blurry photos :(

My second favorite dish of the night.

This was their spin on saag paneer. Instead of just spinach, it had mustard greens and swiss chard as well. The greens were delicious and well spiced. There was a nice amount of paneer in the dish as well, nicely cooked. I didn't really like the dried cranberries on top, the flavors and textures didn't combine well with the rest of the dish.
Manchengo Cheese, Onion & Piquillo Pepper Kulcha.
This photo doesn't really show what this is at all. We dubbed this "the cheesy bread". We ordered 3 more baskets of it throughout the meal and pretty seriously considered ordering even more. I think this was everyone's favorite item of the night.

Inside the bread is manchengo cheese and piquillo peppers. The peppers added a delightful kick. This was basically an Indian quesadilla. Our first order wasn't quite as good as the rest as it was a little bit colder (probably had been sitting while the rest of food was getting ready to be brought out), but the subsequent ones were served piping hot and amazingly melty. Seriously, the cheese was melted better than any grilled cheese I've ever had. The bread itself was good (we had plain naan as well, which was good for plain naan), but the filling was just ZOMG amazing.

This bread did present a major dilema: do you use it to lap up the butter chicken sauce or not? The butter chicken sauce is amazing, and normally you want to use your naan to do that, but this stuff was so delicious on its own that you almost didn't want to, else you masked the manchengo/pepper flavors. Life is hard :)
Classic Crème Brulee infused with mango, topped with blackberries.
I've been on a quest to get some good creme brulee lately. I've been ordering it everywhere I go where it appears on the menu. And I've yet to be satisfied. I should have known not to try it at an Indian restaurant, but you never know ...

I really didn't like this, but had a lot of it as I kept trying to like it.

The custard was pretty boring, with a light mango flavor. Not enough mango flavor to be a good mango dish, but not enough other flavor to be good without it.

The sugar layer was too thin, it didn't add any caramelized flavor that makes creme brulee good.

The caramel thing sticking out was good though.
Kesari Rasmalai - Soft poached homemade cheese dumplings in a saffron flavored light milk syrup.
Another dessert I really didn't like.

I'm not really sure what I expected given the menu description, as I'm not really familiar with indian desserts. This doesn't inspire me to try more.

The cheese dumplings were kinda just cold flavorless lumps. The sauce was milky, with saffron flavor and pistachios. Not really my thing.

However, one friend loved the sauce and was literally drinking it out of the bowl.


[ Originally posted Jan 28, 2012 on Google+, moved here so I could link to it ]
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