BERKELEY’s BEST ●Restaurants
Ajanta 1888 Solano Ave./The Alameda. With an ever-changing menu of creative, complex regional Indian dishes, this popular, attractive restaurant where some of the servers wear turbans is always a delight. Drapes separate the entry from the central dining room, and that room from the kitchen. Complete dinners are well priced, and presentation is part of the pleasure. Appetizers include papadam (a crisp lentil wafer served with dipping sauce) and alu tikki (deep-fried potato-and-pea patties). Complimentary condiments include mango chutney, housemade spicy carrots, and sour lime pickles. Entrees change regularly and include curries, tandoori meats (including signature lamb-rib chops) and fish, plus a selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes (but by request almost any dish can be made vegan or vegetarian); all can be ordered in any degree of spiciness. Plates are attractively arranged with three scoops of saffron-laced rice anchored in the middle by a mound of spinach purée. A light mango mousse and liquidy kulfi rice pudding are especially delicious desserts. Use is made of local products, including Berkeley-brewed beers and Peet’s coffee, and decaf chai--a rarity--is available.
This restaurant is named for a site in western India where ancient Buddhist cave temples are a famous tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Reproductions of some of the cave paintings appear on wall murals that were painted in India. Soft-spoken Ajanta owner Lachu Moorjani was the first to offer organic ingredients in a Bay Area Indian restaurant. He also is the first to bring in regional Indian dishes. (His cookbook--Ajanta: Regional Feasts of India--features these regional dishes and is available for purchase at the restaurant; he will sign it for you.) Other restaurants offer these exotic dishes now, but no one else has the variety. The menu rotates regularly, so each time you return many new dishes are available. I recently dined here once again and was particularly impressed with the creative vegetarian selections. Tandoori portobello mushrooms are moist and chewy and spiced with cloves and cinnamon. Badal Jaam consists of smoky, thick eggplant slices that are fried and brushed with housemade tomato sauce and mango powder. My favorite, Baby Squash Medley, consisted of a variety of squashes mixed with peas and paneer cheese in a tomato curry sauce. I also especially liked both the spectacular tandoori scallops appetizer (they had just the right texture and were served with a yogurt-cashew-tamarind sauce) and the Methi Machi entrée (a filet of fresh wild salmon in a delicious tomato-based sauce). Paired with a cup of decaf chai, a mango mousse or creamy frozen Kulfi studded with pistachios provides the perfect ending.
Now Moorjani is again exploring new paths with a Chef’s Tasting Menu. I visited recently to sample the vegetarian menu ($24) (a non-vegetarian menu ($27) is also available). Note that it is a requirement that everyone at the table order the same dinner. Our spread began with complimentary papadam lentil wafers and mint-cilantro sauce. Then came fleshy portobello mushrooms with a delicate sauce of cashews, cilantro, mint, tamarind, and yogurt. Tandoori asparagus arrived with a low-key sour cream-cashew sauce. And then came our last appetizer--a vegetable samosa stuffed with potatoes and fresh peas and a side of cilantro sauce topped with tamarind. At this point things revved up, and our entrees arrived all at once: Navrattan korma (seven different vegetables in a rich creamy curry sauce with nuts and paneer); khumb jahanara (a mix of shitake mushrooms spiced with onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger cashew paste, coriander, cardamom, and cloves); bheh kofta balls (formed from lotus roots, potatoes, breadcrumbs, and spices and served in an orange-colored sauce of onions, garlic, tomatoes, yogurt, cashews, and more spices); and our hands-down favorite—red and smoky achari baingan (eggplant in a highly spiced sauce composed of tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and Indian pickling spices). Surprisingly, we had room for dessert, which was a choice of pistachio kulfi, exotic and refreshing cardamom gelato, mangoey mango sorbet, and the best gulab jamun I’ve ever had—swimming in a honey sauce.