Relax, Peninsula diners. Amber India may have changed venues and cities, but it's still deserving of its reputation as the premier local Indian restaurant.
After two decades in Mountain View, owner Vijay Bist in October moved the original Amber India just a block west down El Camino Real and across the street to Los Altos. Yes, it's a different town, but in the spectrum of relocation distances, this is as minor as they get.
The menu stayed the same and the signature duo of butter chicken and tandoori chicken are thriving in the new environs. The butter chicken ($18.95) could refer to the texture of the roasted, taken-off-the-bone meat. In reality, the namesake derives from the butter, combined with cumin, myriad spices and cream, that make up the sauce. It's thick and robust, and the spices keep it bright when it could be overwhelmingly heavy.
Tandoori chicken is textbook in its spice coating and kiss of char, while the meat stays tender. Tandoori chicken can be ordered on its own, as a salad or as part of a tandoori mixed grill ($28.95). The last is an oversized sizzling platter with a prawn kebab, dry chicken tikka breast cubes and a superb duo of boldly spiced lamb kebabs. Make sure to add a bowl of raita (cucumber-flecked yogurt) as a dipping-sauce.
Amber India's cooking, led by chefs Salinder Singh Aujhla (who also made the move down El Camino) and Vivek Desirazu (previously sous chef/chef de cuisine at one of Amber India's San Francisco locations for a year), is Northern India-centric, with classics like the lamb curry rogan josh ($20.95) from Kashmir and the terrific spice-dusted potato and cauliflower dish aloo gobhi ($13.95). Southern Indian specialties mostly make an impression on the seafood side. You'll find tamarind perking up the Southwest coast staple Cochin scallops and a chili-enhanced Goan fish curry. Madras seafood curry ($21.95) sadly shows the difference between seafood and fish in their optimal cooking methods. The scallops were too springy, the shrimp a bit tough, the mussels stringy but the fish was just right.
Vegetarian dishes play a pivotal role. A starter of fried cauliflower coated in a ketchup and soy sweet-and-sour sauce ($7.95) sports an exemplary batter coating, as if it's the delicate work of a tempura master at a Michelin-starred Japanese establishment. Another winner puts baked eggplant ($14.95) in the lead role with onions, tomatoes and fiery spices that will test diners' heat tolerance.
Finding less success, button mushrooms and peas ($14.95) with lotus seeds swim in a watery, too-tame onion and ginger curry.
The most common vegetarian selection might also be the most uninteresting of the group: dal bukhara ($13.95), porridge-like lentils with stewed tomatoes, cream and no character.
With so many curries crowding the plate, don't skimp on the saffron rice or naan. Better yet, consider the goat cheese- and paneer-stuffed naan ($4.75) that could contend with the Midpeninsula's leading slices of pizza.
Fans of sweets will enjoy the gulab jamun ($4.95), beignet-like milk dumplings saturated in a rose syrup that mirrors the sugar rush of Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts. Savory dessert fans might not have a problem with rasmalai ($5.95), the chalky cheese dumplings in saffron sauce, but after one bite, it had me heading down the street to Smitten for ice cream.
Lunch is buffet only, which can be a highway to the cubicle siesta if you're not careful. For the quality of the 20 or so items and $15 cost, plus unlimited free and warm naan, it's a flat-out steal. Shockingly, nothing at the buffet suffered from sitting out except for the tepid tandoori chicken, fried potato patties, and pakoda (unexciting vegetable fritters). Somebody needs to explain why neither had a heat source. At the start and end of the line, skip the iceberg lettuce, not-sweet mango and harsh tomato salad, along with the unripe melon pieces for the dessert fruit. Both belong in a Hilton banquet room, not a skilled chef-driven dining room.
Most recently, the space at 4926 El Camino Real was a Middle Eastern kebab joint called Pineapple Grill. Further back, the underground floor of the three-story building was celebrated nightclub Chuck's Cellar. The sprawling complex is more than twice as large as the Mountain View original. Besides the main dining room and its bar, there is a gorgeous outdoor patio, upstairs banquet hall, private dining room and a downstairs lounge with a separate appetizers menu. Modern paintings on the walls and a semi-circle skylight window anchor the airy 140-seat white tablecloth dining room, which has a long leather banquette and handsome Mission-style interior arches. This is the rare grown-up atmosphere that also is family friendly. It's especially serene in the daytime with sunlight streaming in.
Service is well-mannered and helpful, though could be slightly more attentive. On all visits there was a prolonged period between being seated and when a waiter came to the table. I appreciate how servers will individually serve diners' plates at dinner from the large bowls and plates. Yet, I cringed when curry sauces would collide as a result and the tandoori chicken became tandoori-butter chicken.
The cocktails need work, and the reasonably priced wine list doesn't try to be anything more than a couple indifferent reds and whites. The mango lassi or chai are the wise drink choices.
There was certainly anxiety about the move, especially after the short-lived, two-level, 275-seat Amber Dhara outpost in San Francisco, also owned by Bist, closed in 2014. Fortunately, all is well in Los Altos. The new version of the original remains one of the standards for Indian cuisine on the Peninsula.
4926 El Camino Real, Los Altos
Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and 5 pm. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Take-out orders: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Parking: Easy lot
Alcohol: Full bar
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Quiet to medium
Bathroom cleanliness: Fair