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November 19, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 19, 2004

Subtle and savory Subtle and savory (November 19, 2004)

Shiva's northern Indian flavors are sublime

by Aimee M. Male

Indian cuisine is full of surprises. It is exciting to dip a finger into a ruby red sauce and ponder: Will it sear my tongue, be tangy or taste as sweet as fruit? Often, the answer is all of the above.

Expect many surprises at Shiva's, an Indian bar and restaurant that opened in a prime spot on the corner of Castro and California streets in August. While offering many familiar regional specialties, such as tandoor-grilled meats, Shiva's also presents curious diners with a number of original plates representing the best of northern Indian cuisine.

While southern Indian foods inspire the fire-eaters among us, northern cuisine focuses on more subtle and savory flavors, with dishes accented with spices such as cardamom, saffron, cinnamon and cloves. Shiva's rich curries include the lamb sali boti ($14.95), which combines tender lamb with fresh ginger, spices and apricots, and the Goan prawns ($14.95), which mixes fresh mint, cilantro, garlic and onion flavors.

From the street, large windows offer a glimpse into Shiva's luxurious dining room, lit by candlelight that shimmers gold against traditional artwork hung on the blushed-peach walls. The ceilings are high and are covered with delicate images of sky and clouds.

The kitchen of executive chef Dominic Sarkar is partially open to the dining room, tantalizing waiting guests with a bouquet of pungent curry perfumes. Sarkar brings more than 20 years of professional experience to Shiva's, having cooked for regional royalty and movie stars in Dubai and Bahrain.

Shiva's is owner Shyam Choudhary's first enterprise with partner Harsh Behl, an experienced restaurateur who operated restaurants in Sweden prior to coming to California two years ago. Choudhary, an entrepreneur and mechanical engineer by trade, said opening an Indian restaurant was a long-time dream.

"I am the main cook of my house," Choudhary said. "I have always had a natural inclination to food and cooking."

He decided to name his restaurant after the main deity in Hinduism, hoping the god known as a destroyer, or re-creator, would look favorably upon his new business.

Shiva's is still working out some early kinks natural for any new restaurant -- the wait in between courses can range, and waiters can appear rushed or distracted, depending on how busy the evening is. Regardless, the staff is helpful in describing and recommending menu items.

Appetizer platters are a good way to get a taste of a number of Shiva's specialties. The vegetarian platter ($5.95) offers a baked samosa, stuffed with potatoes, various vegetables and sharp coriander spices. I thought the platter's inclusion of only one sami dil ruba -- a fried patty of farmer's and feta cheeses, spinach and potato -- was skimpy until I took a bite. It's a dense cake, reminiscent of a moist falafel with a generous mix of ginger and coriander.

A handful of bite-sized Bombay onion bhaji fritters were deep-fried to a crusty brown, the insides a bright yellow and rich with savory onion. Dress it with the tamarind-and-mint sauce that is brought with fresh vegetables as an amuse bouche .

A bowl of steaming mulligatawny hot-pot soup ($3.95) had a deep saffron color and delivered a sharp, nose-watering kick of curry. A hint of lemon added some more tang to the curried spices.

A waiter kindly helped me identify the myriad ingredients in the raj kachori ($3.95): A salad of chick peas and other legumes, potato, puffed crunchy rice and fresh ginger slivers is piled high on top of fried bread and then dressed in mint-tamarind sauce and whipped yogurt.

Call it the ultimate leftover salad, or even an Indian tostada. It is definitely an explosion of flavor, with biting ginger and cooling yogurt in one mouthful, and nutty chickpeas and fresh cilantro in another. I could imagine how refreshing this chilled salad would be on a sweltering summer day.

Shiva's tandoor-grilled dishes are exciting, as meats grilled in the clay oven arrive spitting and sizzling on a hot iron plate. Entrees include traditional chicken, lamb, seafood and vegetarian options, including battered cauliflower and broiled farmer's cheese.

I tried the lehsooni kebab ($14.95), large chicken chunks marinated overnight in yogurt, garlic and spices. The chicken was tender and very moist, the yogurt marinade a bright orange-red against the white meat.

Another time I sampled the pudina salmon tikka ($14.95), four generous salmon pieces painted with a mint-coriander cream sauce. The heat of the clay oven might be too intense for the tender flesh, as the fish was dry. The color combination of pink salmon and green sauce was also jarring.

On the restaurant's take-out menu, Shiva's selection is called a "curry fair" and it is an apt description. Be sure to bring a gaggle of friends to dinner to try a few. One of the more interesting options include the nine pepper dancing prawns ($15.95), a mildly spicy curry that is infused with fresh, sweet mango.

Flat breads are a better utensil for curry than a spoon or fork could ever be. Butter naan ($2.95) is just that -- chewy and buttery and cut into four pieces. Garlic naan ($2.95) is coated with a very thin layer of minced garlic and fresh herbs, barely enough to notice when dipped in any curry.

Paraantha breads are made with whole-wheat flour, and are more dense and flat when compared to the bubbly, fluffy naan. I tried the aaloo paraantha ($2.95), bread stuffed with potato and spices. It was chewy and tasted like pita with a light schmear of potato paste.

Shiva's offers a selection of regional desserts that are simple and not too sweet. My dining companion and I shared a pot of phirni ($3.95), a chilled, thick rice pudding spiced with cardamom and cinnamon and dotted with plump raisins. I might have preferred this treat warmed for breakfast, but it was tasty nonetheless. A cup of masala chai ($2.95) was creamy, offering just a hint of spice and fortification against the chill outside.

The restaurant also has an extensive beer and wine list, with more than 75 types of domestic and imported wines. Starting this month, Shiva's will sponsor a happy hour Monday through Friday at its full bar, featuring specialty cocktails and infused vodkas.

I appreciate a dining experience that not only delights my stomach but also stimulates my mind. Shiva's offers a great selection of original Indian specialties that are unique and exciting, in a setting that is comfortable and classy. It is an education in northern Indian cuisine that is not to be missed.

Shiva's Indian Restaurant and Bar,
800 California St. in Mountain View; (650) 960-3802; www.shivasrestaurant.com.

Hours: Lunch buffet Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.

Reservations: yes
Credit Cards: yes
Parking: lot and street
Beer & Wine: yes
Takeout: yes for dinner
Catering: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Highchairs: yes
Outdoor seating: no
Banquet: yes
Noise Level: moderate
Bathroom Cleanliness: excellent


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