Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dinner @ Gajalee

Tonight we had a big change of pace.  No Michelin stars.   No fine dining.   Just casual indian food.

Gajalee opened not that long ago, to pretty fantastic reviews.  Food critics and Yelpers alike have been raving about it, particularly mentioning how authentic it is.  Gajalee serves south indian coastal cuisine, from the Goa, Kerala, and Kamataka regions.  While I am not really familiar with south indian food, I was hopeful about this place, particularly as they are largely seafood focused, which sounded great to me, and as I still have yet to find an indian restaurant in San Francisco that I really like.  This continues to make me very sad, as I really do enjoy indian food!

Service was generally fine, but clearly a bunch of notches down from what I'm used to these days.  The waiter was a little difficult to understand.  Dishes were presented without any explanation, so I wasn't ever really sure what the side dishes and accompaniments were.  We were eating everything family style, but no serving utensils were provided.  When we asked to have the leftovers to go, all of our dishes and utensils were cleared away, and some plastic containers were handed to us.  We had no way to scoop the food into the containers and needed to ask for new spoons to do so.

There was nothing particularly notable about the decor of the restaurant, it was pretty generic and simple.  Hard wooden tables and chairs.  We were provided with both cloth napkins and paper napkins - the utensils were on the paper napkins and the cloth napkins were inside the water glasses.  I think the paper ones may have been intended just as a place to put the silverware?  I actually appreciated this, but it made me question the cleanliness of the tables!

It was really refreshing to just go to a "normal" restaurant, far more relaxed than the style of dining we have been doing so much of lately.

The prices were shockingly low for the seeming quality and quantity of food.  Definitely a good value, particularly compared to the far more upscale SOMA Amber and Pac Heights Dosa type of options, although the product was clearly lower quality than those places.

I didn't particularly like anything we ordered, but I think this could have been due to not ordering the sort of dishes I normally like.  There was some good spicing, which makes me hopeful that dishes more my style would be good.  Since I wasn't that familiar with south indian food, I stuck with recommendations from reviews, rather than what I'd graviate towards.  I'd like to return to try the chicken tikka masala, the palak paneer, and the fried fish.
Meen pollichathu: fish marinated in home made spices and slow cooked in plantain leaf.  $13.
This was a very large filet of sea bass, steamed in a plantain leaf, and covered with chopped onion and tomato based sauced.  The fish was moist and tender, and seemed decent quality.  The sauce was really flavorful, fresh tasting, and delicious.  It reminded me more of an italian dish than an indian one given the strong tomato and onion component.

It was served with a side of raita and a curry sauce, neither of which were really necessary as the tomato and onion sauce on the fish itself was so flavorful.  It also had a small side salad of raw red onions and peppers, which were surprisingly fresh and crispy, that I enjoyed, and also added to the very fresh feeling of the dish.

This dish was by far the best of the evening.  The whole thing felt light, healthy, and refreshing.  The tomato and onion sauce was really flavorful.  I wouldn't go out of my way for it, but I'd eat it again.  And $13 for a filet this size?  Very high value.
Fish xaccuti: tamarind and caramalized onion based sauce.  $13.
This is a dish I wasn't familiar with, from the Goan region.  I would have never ordered this normally, but I had read good things about it.

The fish used was basa, and it was really just a generic, flaky white fish.  Every chunk I had unfortunately had very small pieces of bones in it.

We had one diner with a sensitive stomach, so we ordered everything medium spicy.  This dish still had a nice spice level to it.  I didn't particularly like the spices or sauce, I think it just wasn't my sort of thing.  I didn't taste any caramelized onion.  This made me sad, as my favorite part of indian cuisine is the delicious sauces!

I didn't really care for this - the fish itself wasn't very good, I certainly wasn't a fan of the bone fragments, and the sauce just wasn't my sort of thing.  I would not get this again.  I've read that it is a really authentic dish however, so this could just be personal preference.
Paratha: multi layered white flour, pan fried.  $2 each (2 orders pictured).
Another recommended dish.  I almost really liked this.  I am more familiar with naan as my bread accompaniment to indian food, so this was nice to try as something different (they have a large selection of breads, but no naan).

It was made up of many layers, making it fun to eat, peeling off pieces.  The inside was moist, the outside crispy and fried.  It had a hearty flavor to it, and I was surprised to see that it was made from white flour, as it seemed more flavorful than that.  It was however just too oily for my taste.  Had it been just a little less oily, I think I would have really liked it, as it reminded me of fried dough.

We had two of these for four people, which was too much, a single one would have been fine as they were really quite large.  $2 was a very reasonable price.
Fish Thali: selection of different dishes served in a round platter.  $15.
The most recommended dish I'd read about was the fish thali.  I love getting to try a slew of things, so this appealed to me in that sense too, described as "selection of different dishes served in a round platter: kochambiri, two vegs of the day, basmati rice, dessert and two pcs of komdi vade, served with your choice of main course".  So many things to try!  However, the main dish that everyone raved about when referring to the thali was a fried fish, and ours came with a curry.

Komdivade: rice flour, gram flour, fenugreek seed, cumin, red chill.  This was the puffy bread in the center of the platter.  It was really hearty, with good flavor.  I didn't love it, but it was nice to have to dunk into all the sides.

Clockwise, from top:

Raita: This was different from the raita that came with the plantain leaf steamed fish in that it was loaded up with bits of raw red onion.  Not particularly interesting, but a nice cooling component.

Eggplant veggie side: I'm not sure entirely what this was, but it had chunks of eggplant and potatoes.  The potato was rather mushy and everything seemed overcooked.  Not really notable, but had ok spicing. 

Carrot halwa: grated carrot with cheese and milk.  This was delicious!  I didn't realize originally that this was the dessert, as it was included on the platter with the rest of the thali.  I had a bite of it mixed with some of the other sides, and thought it was really sweet and amazing, but perhaps a little too sweet and strange to mix with the fish in particular.  Then I remembered that the menu said the thali would include a dessert, and that the menu listed 3 desserts: rice pudding, carrot halwa, or gulab jamun.  Given that I certainly didn't see rice pudding nor dumplings, and this was definitely carrot based, I put two and two together.  I'd never had carrot halwa before, and I must say, I really liked it.  I was put off by the very mushy consistency at first, but it was a really nice level of natural sweetness from the carrot, balanced by some other spices, and enhanced by added sugars.  I didn't pick up on the cheese.  My favorite dish of the night, hands down.  

Cauliflower veggie side: another side that I am not really sure what it was.  The primary ingredient was cauliflower, but there were also some beans.  Again, very similar to the eggplant side in that the vegetables were rather mushy and seemed overcooked.  The flavors were ok, but nothing great.

Lentil veggie side: and yet another vegetable side dish.  Was this the kochambiri?  I thought kochambiri was supposed to be a raw, more salad like dish, but this is the closest thing to it.  More just mushy vegetables.

Basmati rice: fluffy enough rice, nothing much to say here.  We also had a regular order of this as well.

Fish curry: This wasn't much different from the other curry we had.  It was also basa.  The fish was in slightly smaller chunks and was less moist.  The sauce seemed very smilier to the xaccuti.  We all wondered if it was the same, but it seemed slightly different.  I wish the waiter would have mentioned that we were ordering two of essentially the same thing.  We really wanted, and expected, this to be the fried fish!

The only thing I really liked on this platter was the dessert.  I would not order this again.  In the future, I'd stick to ordering things a la carte - I'd get the fried fish, the veggie sides I was more interested in, and of course, the dessert.  That said, I did appreciate getting to try a bunch of things, and I would have never ordered the carrot halwa on my own.  This was a ton of food for $15, a great value.

[ Not pictured ]
Sol kadi: kokum and coconut based drink.  $3.
I'd read that this drink would go well with the food.  It was crazy salty.  I didn't particularly like it, but it would have definitely helped to mellow out the heat had we ordered the food spicy.
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