Indian 2.0

For the vegetarian amritsari paneer tikka, Ambrosia batters cottage cheese in yogurt and ajwain, cooks it in a clay oven with tomato sauce and brings it steaming to the table.

The country of India isn’t for everyone. It’s smelly, sooty and smoky. Cows may be revered (and sitting in the street), but personal space is not. Hinduism is the national faith, but driving is the real religious experience. After my dad went, he told me he’s not going back.

I’d love to return. From the fancy hotels of Juhu (where crashing an Indian wedding is recommended) to the slums of Mumbai (where the tiny school rooms and joyous kids are inspiring) to the flourishing vineyards of Nashik (Sula Vineyards is going gangbusters) to the funky shacks of Goa (the beaches stretch forever), I found all the funk and pollution comes with steady accompaniment: Also along for the ride are striking colors, supreme earnestness and a warm welcoming spirit.

Those qualities are reflected in the food, along with another key ingredient: excitement. I get a little giddy thinking about the wild watermelon curry, pork vindaloo and multiple bowls of spicy shrimp soup for breakfast.

The closest I’ve been to that breed of culinary excitement comes exactly eight months later, at this moment, in Monterey County, where Indian food has never been better.

And not in a keep-your-arms-inside-the-tuk-tuk-as-we-barrel-through-this-traffic type of excitement.

About a year after worthy Namaste India Bistro (641-0130) brought kale pakoda and Goan-style tiger shrimp curry to Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey, Monterey Bay’s crown dynasty of Indian, Ambrosia Indian Bistro Cafe (324-4852), has opened an impressive new 60-seat restaurant at 751 Cannery Row across from C Restaurant (while discontinuing its grab-and-go buffet up the street). That means the eight-time winner for Best Indian in our annual readers vote now has four family-owned outposts. (The others are in downtown Monterey, Aptos and Scotts Valley.)

Co-owner Shyam “Sam” Khanal can’t contain his excitement any more than he can stop the steam from leaping off the sizzling tandoori lobster ($34). He’s stoked to access new audiences the downtown spot didn’t: More Pagrovians, tourists and folks looking for Indian mid-afternoon (hours are 11am-9pm daily).

“It’s nice to be on Cannery Row, to have the foot traffic, to serve more people,” he says.

From 11am-3pm there’s a robust lunch buffet ($10.99) with around 10 items like fresh naan, lamb curry and signature butter chicken.

“We have to serve the butter chicken,” he says, “or we get in trouble.”

He’s eyeing perennial favorites in downtown Monterey as similar best-sellers here, like clay-oven chili-garlic basa ($15) and secret-recipe rack-of-lamb kebabs ($24). Newer dishes should tempt eaters too, including lamb samosas ($7), quinoa salad ($5) and beet pudding (with the buffet), along with a 3-6pm happy hour with 12 drafts and house wine at $3.50 to sip at the beautiful new bar. Jump to the blog (www.mcweekly.com/edible) for a 10-photo tour and links to the full menu.

Across the Peninsula, Khanal’s one-time (and longtime) partner at Ambrosia downtown Monterey, Bhupender Singh, just soft-opened his own upscale destination spot. Aabha Indian Cuisine occupies the former Bahama Billy’s on the lower level of the Barnyard Carmel with an indoor mini wall-waterfall and lots of Indian art. (Aabha means “spark” or “light” in Hindi; pictures of that are live on the blog too.)

The menu gives off sparks – think avocado pomegranate chaat ($8), cauliflower Manchurian ($6), goat cheese-stuffed lamb kebabs ($9) and a tandoori seafood trio with pineapple prawns, basil salmon and sea bass ($22).

“It’s my East-meets-West, my sense of India and its food, authentic Indian flavors, with modern interpretations and California ingredients,” he says.

Hours run 11:30am-2:30pm for the lunch buffet ($12.95), 2:30-4:30pm for happy hour with six draft beers and house wines for $5 and $4, respectively, and 5-9pm daily for dinner.

His foundation is classic French and Italian training, but his inspiration is time in his native New Delhi streets and in prominent Indian kitchens with chefs like Madhu Wadhwani and Mohammad Naseem. He continues to tap his melting pot beginnings, while going easier on the spice, fat and ghee than he did in India.

“In New Delhi, we targeted our neighbors,” he says. “In the capital we had so many different kinds of Indian and international cuisines.”

That’s when he swings around to what makes India so fun to visit, and makes food such a functional pathway to understanding soul.

“Food has no language, no race,” he says. “I can show you my culture. Cooking connects.”

~ QUICKBITES ~

  • I. Brand & Family Wines’ tasting room (298-7227) has opened in the former Coastview space at 19 E. Carmel Valley Road. More on the blog.
  • Grand opening for the new and brightly repainted Chopstix – in the former Taste of Vietnam on Fremont in Seaside – arrives Sunday, Dec. 4, with a week of daily discounts and promotions.
  • Dec. 3 – 11 is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Community Open House (free admission for tricounty locals), or as I like to describe it, best time to eat at Cindy’s Waterfront.
  • House of Gyros in Seaside (394-4420) is back open after a short period dark, with new owners, thicker pita and a longer wait time on falafel wraps and lamb-beef shawarma.
  • Mulligan Public House finally has a hopeful soft open date: Friday, Dec. 2, with grand opening Wednesday, Dec. 7.
  • The Dunes complex of fast-casual spots is starting to see its first openings. Look for word on the Dec. 8 launch of Teriyaki Madness on the blog, and a preview of the sequence of coming debuts.
  • One of my favorite places to eat basically serves no food. But Farmers Union Pour House regularly does food trucks like Ate3one (247-5696) – with its poke nachos and naughty fries – to go with all that great beer and wine (see p. 50).
  • Robbie’s Oceanfresh Seafood (212-0231) of Wharf Two came through with Fanny Bay oysters. I came through with the barbecue-butter-bacon dressing and baked ‘em up. Holiday heaven.
  • The Cesar Chavez Library in Salinas offers a free meal to kids age 18 and under from Monday to Friday. Kids sign in between 3 and 3:30pm to enjoy a late lunch like a recent offering of French bread pizza, corn, side salad and milk.
  • Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram, set in Mumbai slums: “Fate gives all of us three teachers, three friends, three enemies, and three great loves in our lives. But these 12 are always disguised, and we can never know which one is which until we’ve loved them, left them, or fought them.”
  • You’re very much missed, Chuck Foss and Ian Rigg. Your unique spirits remain.

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