Saturday, November 10, 2012

Tava Indian Kitchen

Tava is a fast casual Indian restaurant, opening in SOMA on Wednesday.  They already have a location down in Palo Alto, opened 9 months ago, that has received very good reviews.  I was invited to a preview dinner tonight, a test run of the new restaurant.  I was excited, as I do love Indian food, and haven't found a place in the city that I've liked all that much.

The first thing I noticed when I entered was an entire wall decorated with spice jars.  I hoped that this implied that they use fresh and plentiful spices.  And indeed they do!

The concept behind Tava is to be a "gateway to Indian food", making it more accessible and familiar to Americans.  To achieve this, the menu is very simple, using form factors familiar to most.  They offer something for everyone, with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options.  To start, you choose either a rice bowl, a salad, or an Indian burrito, dubbed a "burroti".

The ordering process is completely customizable, and is done assembly line style.  You next select the hot components, a protein and sauce.  Then you move down to the cold chutneys and fresh vegetables.  They make it simple and not intimidating, but do not sacrifice on the core part of what makes Indian food so great, the amazing spicing.

Another of their core concepts is using fresh, quality ingredients, which you can see the moment you order, as your roti starts as a ball of dough, cooked and pressed fresh to order.  When you select a protein, the lamb is grass fed.

They also care about offering a healthy meal, using yogurt in place of cream and ghee.  You don't feel all weighed down and heavy after eating there.

The food was good, and did live up to the promises of fast, fresh, and flavorful.  Ojan really enjoyed his burroti.  I haven't seen him this excited about a meal in ages.  I think he made better selections than I.

One area that the menu was lacking is one of my favorites - desserts.  There were none available.  I'd like to put in a plug to add some, particularly rice pudding.  Some of us just aren't satisfied without ending on a sweet note :)

The other area that fell short was the beverage offerings.  The menu does have chai and mango lassi, although they were not available at the test run, but mostly they just have soda and far-too-sweet Minute Maid Lemonade.  This doesn't seem to fit in with their general themes of fresh and healthy, and really doesn't seem to match the clientele right either.  It was honestly the first time I've come across fountain beverages in years!

I'm very excited to see a quality, fast casual restaurant opening in the area.  I expect that they will be very successful, and the focus on fresh and healthy ingredients is a good match for the neighborhood.   I hope they are able to be open on nights and weekends, as this neighborhood has so few options for easy dinners.  They will likely be very popular with the lunch crowd, much like nearby Sushirito and The Melt.

I hope to return soon now that I've tried the basics, and really customize the meal to better suit my style!
Burroti. $7.49 + $2 for paneer add on.
I choose the burroti.  A burroti is basically a burrito, made with fresh roti as the wrapper.  When you order, they actually take a ball of dough, press and grill it to order.  Then you pick your fillings, and it is assembled for you.

I was only the second customer of the test day, and it was clear that they were still getting the roti making technique down.  Mine was very doughy, barely cooked.  I really loved that they made it fresh, starting with a ball of dough, but it wasn't very good.  Since it wasn't fully cooked, it was really hard to take bites out of.  I ended up just unwrapping it and eating it with a fork.  When we mentioned this to the owner, he brought us over a new batch, and it was like an entirely different product.  Immediately upon seeing it, you could tell they were far more cooked, nicely golden brown on the outside.  I ended up eating a bunch of the extra roti dipped in some chutney and really enjoyed it.  Had my roti originally been more cooked, it certainly would have been more successful.

To start, you select white basmati or brown rice, both with some parsley mixed in.  The rice was fluffy and not buttery.  Fairly generic, not bad.  I went for the brown rice, which had a slight heartiness to it.

Then, you pick your "protein".  The options were chicken, lamb, or vegetables.  None of these options were all that appealing to me, as I hate lamb, usually don't like chicken, and vegetables are kinda boring (and aren't really a protein).  I asked to try the chicken first.  It was marinated and grilled, with a nice smoky flavor.  Pretty good, but I didn't want chicken.  Ojan had the pulled, grass fed lamb.  He said it was moist and not at all grisly.  Every few bites he happily commented on how high quality the lamb was.  I decided to get the vegetables, a mix of cauliflower, onions, and peppers.  This isn't a mix I was excited for, but since I didn't want the other options, I went for it.  The vegetables weren't very good, kinda mushy.  I wouldn't get them again.  I would have preferred eggplant or peas perhaps.  Or, even better, paneer, but I like that they were trying to have a vegan option.

Next up, you choose your sauce.  The options were daal or tikka.  As I dont like lentils, I went for the tikka.  It fell in line with their entire philosophy of being healthier, using yogurt instead of cream.  Unfortunately, I couldn't taste much of it in my burroti, so I can't really evaluate it.

Then, you choose your chutneys.  Even though I like spicy, I went for the mild tamarind date, it somehow just caught my attention.  Later on in my meal, I was able to sample all of the chutneys, see below for my more complete review of them.  I also added some cooling raita.

Finally, you pick fresh vegetables.  They offer lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, and red onion, all chopped up in a small dice.  I added all but the red onion, as it seemed like it would just be too harsh.  The lettuce and cucumber were fresh enough, added a good crunch, but were fairly unremarkable.  The tomato was under-ripe and not that great.  Ojan didn't order it upon sight, but I still gave it a try.  He made the better move.

Lastly, I discovered paneer, available as an add-in option for $2 more.  Since paneer is what I'd originally wanted, I added it.  It was small cubes, with good grill marks.  Unfortunately, it was cold (by design, it wasn't in the hot section).  I wish it was warmed.

I didn't love my burroti, but I'd really like to try another one, and make different choices.  Next time, I'd either get the chicken or really, what I want, is just paneer.  I wonder if I could do that?  I'd also ask for extra tikka sauce.  And I think I'd leave out all of the fresh vegetables.  They were all fine, but took things far more in the Mexican direction than I wanted.

The $7.49 price point was good, these were quality, fresh ingredients.
Garlic naan chips.
As a side, you can get garlic naan chips.  I expected them to be thicker, more like pita chips, but instead they were thin like tortilla chips.  They weren't at all oily or fried tasting.  Like the rest of the food, it was lighter, healthier, fresher than you expect.  Subtle garlic flavor.  A nice side to dip into the assorted chutneys.
Assorted Chutneys.
All of the chutneys were really impressive, bursting with flavor.  They were incredibly fresh tasting, clearly made with fresh ingredients and plentiful spices.

Clockwise, from top left.
  • Tava Lava: This was the spiciest one, although not in a traditional way.  The heat didn't hit at first, instead, you tasted the vegetables, the peppers and tomato that go into it.  But the heat came through in the finish.  It combined nicely with the cooling raita.  I really liked how strong the vegetable flavors were in this one.
  • Spicy Mint: This one actually seemed the spiciest to me, but it was a complex spiciness, as it was balanced by the cooling mint in it.  Very minty, very good.
  • Medium Cilantro Lime: When Ojan tasted this, he exclaimed "I don't know how they make it taste so cilantro-y!" It was so clearly cilantro.  Not my favorite flavor, but very fresh.
  • Mild Tamarind Date: I loved this one.  Ojan thought it was a little too sweet.  The sweetness came from dates, so it wasn't just sweet, it was flavorful.  Delicious as a dipping sauce.  When the owner saw me savoring every last bit of this, he offered me some naan chips and some of this to take home.  Such a tasty snack later on.
  • Raita: Nice cooling yogurt based dip, with some cucumber in it.  Combined nicely with all of the other sauces.
Hot Chai. $3.25.
While walking by one afternoon, it was cold out, and I saw that they had hot chai.  I didn't want food, but I really wanted a warm, comforting beverage.

Warm it was.  The chai was incredibly hot, too hot to drink at first, but I appreciated how long it stayed hot, keeping me warm for the rest of my journey.

The chai however was very, very sweet.  I love sweets, but this was a bit too much for me.  Nicely spiced, but overwhelmed by sweetness and milkiness.

Speaking of spices, they weren't strained out, so when I got near the end of the cup, I got a giant swig of ground up spices.  That was very unpleasant, but perhaps my own fault?

I didn't love this, but it was a nice change from a standard coffee beverage, and fun to try something different.

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Iced Chai.  $3.

And on other day, it was crazy hot out, and the idea of an iced chai sounded very appealing.

Like the hot chai, this was very sweet.  Again, too sweet for me.  It was also strangely served cold but without any ice in it, and the cup was filled to the brim, so I couldn't add ice at the ice machine.  And topped with a hot beverage lid, not a cold beverage lid, although I could easily add a straw and poke it through the sip hole.

Anyway, it didn't meet my desire for a refreshing cool beverage, since it wasn't actually iced, and it was far too sweet to be refreshing.  I wouldn't get this again.
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