by Susan Bryan
Take two brothers. Make one a contractor, the other a cook. Give them a restaurant that specializes in their native cuisine and you get Janta, the best new ethnic restaurant in town. Owner Baldev Mann and his brother Mukhtair have completely transformed the former Crabnet restaurant on Lytton Avenue. As Janta, the place has graceful new arches and a tiny patio with seating for eight. Sandblasting revealed the hidden beauty of the restaurant's concrete floor, randomly scored to mimic Mexican paving tiles. On the tables, there's pristine white napery and fresh flowers.
In the culinary department, Janta calls the bluff of Indian restaurants that have gotten lazy. This tiny restaurant cooks everything from scratch. Even the lowly garbanzo bean is roasted before it's boiled. You'll notice the difference in the smoky taste and firm texture--a decisive upgrade from the bland, mushy canned version.
It's attention to detail that gives Janta's dishes their flavor highs. You notice the simple things first. The naan bread is crisper ($1.50). The salad is fresher. The complimentary papadum are paper thin and chock-full of cumin.
Then you'll notice that the spicy mint sauce and tamarind chutney are also homemade. Or you'll savor your first bite of coconut-scented navratna korma, a mild but heavenly mixture of nine different vegetables in a nutty cream sauce ($9). Sooner or later, you come to the inevitable conclusion: The fellows in this kitchen don't just cook, they do cuisine.
Janta's finesse with spices means dishes don't have to depend on chilis for flavor. One of the best mild offerings is shrimp biryani, an exotically flavored rice pilaf studded with tender shrimp and cashew nuts ($12 dinner). This rice meal comes sculpted in pretty, pinwheel-like sections, thanks to the kitchen's cleverness in spooning it onto the plate. If you're not a seafood fan, try the chicken biryani ($11). A friend who imports Indian spices told me this saffron-flavored version is "out of this world."
If you like to nibble a bit of this and that, order one of Janta's special thalis, or tray dinners. You'll get a lot of small servings in stainless steel cups (vegetarian $12, non-vegetarian $14). Either version is a bargain. With both you get salad, the coconut-scented navratna korma I mentioned above, firm cubes of Indian cheese with peas in a spicy tomato sauce, cooling yogurt with fresh shredded veggies, crisp papadum chips, deep-fried poori bread, rice flavored with buttery ghee, and your choice of desserts plus coffee and tea. That's enough for a feast in itself. But on the vegetarian tray, you also get roasted curried garbanzo beans plus lentils with kidney beans in a mustardy cream sauce. On the meat-eater's tray, there's an additional cup of lamb curry and a sizzling platter of tandoori chicken that arrives hot from the barbecuing oven.
If you're watching calories, substitute plain whole wheat chapati for the deep-fried poori and plain rice for the rich pillau. Even then, you'll have trouble getting through this entire meal.
It's hard to return to other Indian restaurants after being spoiled by the staff at Janta. Baldev Mann, the contractor turned maitre d', takes pride in describing precisely how each dish is prepared. If you're on a low-fat diet, he'll tell the cooks to hold the cream. Mann wants to make sure you enjoy your meal. Until his wine license arrives this summer, he's encouraging patrons to brown bag it. If you arrive unprepared, he'll encourage you to boost sales at the 7-11 across the street.
The first time I complimented him on a dish he asked if I wanted more! Never before have I had such an astonishing offer--in any restaurant, anywhere. Yet this fellow won't let you order more than you can eat. When our threesome started to order a fourth dish, he told us firmly, "three is enough."
I never identify myself as a reviewer. But I'm sure I got better treatment as a common customer at Janta than I would as an acknowledged reviewer at a lot of other places in town. When three of us returned for my second visit, we had a coupon for two pakoras, or vegetable fritters. We got three, courtesy of the owner. Ditto the fragrant onion kulcha bread.
After such filling meals, it's tempting to skip dessert at Janta. Don't. This restaurant has the best Indian sweets I've tasted. The nutty, homemade kulfi really tastes like iced cream ($2.50) and the rasmalai with homemade Indian cheese is served in milk that's been boiled for 12 hours with nuts and spices ($2.50). Janta's chai (tea) resembles nothing so much as a lightly spiced latte ($1). And--wonder of wonders--the decaf coffee here ($1) is as fresh and strong as anything you'll get at a fancy coffee bar.
Janta has a weekday lunch buffet ($7). The stew-type dishes are just as flavorful as those served at night, but no steam table could do justice to Janta's wonderful fried samosas or bits of fried fish.
To experience the true genius of this kitchen, make a reservation for dinner. With less than a dozen tables in the whole place, it's often packed. The word is already out that Janta is the best Indian restaurant in town.
Janta Indian Cuisine, 369 Lytton Avenue, Palo Alto, 462-5903
Hours: Monday-Friday lunch buffet from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner from 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday: noon-10 p.m. Sunday: noon-9 p.m. (No buffets on weekends.)
Atmosphere: Upscale cozy, soothing ethnic music
Highlights: All breads and meats from tandoori oven; all biryani dishes; desserts and chai. reservations: yes
credit cards: yes
wheelchair access: yes
outdoor seating: yes
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