After two years spent almost entirely in College Station, Texas, it was safe to say that I was thoroughly disillusioned with what was served in the name of Indian food in the United States, to the point where I only sought it in homes. While there had been shining successes by few, notably by my brother-in-law and my good buddy Pratik, to determinedly find me good Indian food in the nation’s capital and New Jersey respectively, those brief interludes did little to shake my despondency since my trips to the East coast were few and far in between. Little did I know that I’d end up living in San Francisco, a superlative Mecca of cuisine.
Somewhere in between the super-fancy restaurant found here and the “hole-in-the-wall” phenomenon that is also abundant is the kind of restaurant that promises nothing and in doing so, reconfigures what you’ve come to expect. Such was my feeling about the restaurant Chutney in San Francisco. There is nothing to distinguish it on the outside from any other restaurant in its vicinity but the Pakistani-Indian food it claims to deliver, it does so in aces. The food here is what most Indians would recognize as North Indian, a notable difference being the presence of beef, something you are highly unlikely to find in an Indian restaurant back home of this kind. I took one bite of the garlic naan and paneer tikka masala and was instantly transported in time and space. I had found heaven in the middle of one of the gritty neighbourhoods in the city.
As the one of the few Indians at my workplace who live in the city, I have been asked several times what a good Indian restaurant to eat at is. My recommendation for this one has always been met with approval. Chutney boasts a fairly extensive menu and serves tons of things indelibly aligned with Indian food such as tikka masalas, biryanis and koftas. My favourite here is the tikka masala, chicken or paneer and their unbeatable garlic naan. Their preparation of baingan bharta (roasted eggplant) is very different from the way I, and several Indian friends, know it to be made, but is nevertheless very tasty. The palak paneer (or saag paneer as it is called there) is good enough to make you want to eat here every day. For some reason though, the ubiquitous aaloo gobi can be a bit temperamental and can sometimes come out with a double dose of chilli. Why this is the only dish they’ve been known to mess up, I don’t know, but you’ve been warned. On a good day, it tastes great. If it is your first time here, don’t forget to try the biryani. It’s not like the hyderabadi biryani Indians are used to but still a very good variation of it. It certainly isn’t cooked like I know, coming together much quicker than its supposed to, like a glorified pulao. Still it works and is very good. We know them well enough now to order the biryani with potatoes (because to me, a biryani HAS to have potatoes). Tried either way, it’s a great eat, with any meat of your choice. While I can speak authoritatively only of chicken, different friends have tried different meats and fish and have all been pleased with their orders. They have a host of specials that change every day, notable among which are the Chicken Kofta and the Chicken Kheema.
When I first learned of Chutney a good five years ago, it had little décor to speak of and an ancient, creaky exhaust system. The tandoor had created great grey smoky facades and eating in here always required a good, brisk airing after to get the acrid smell out of your hair and water for your eyes. Your clothes sadly couldn’t just do with an airing and had to be washed immediately. All this never stopped me from eating here. After a brisk fire broke out three or so years ago, rebuilding required a shiny new exhaust grill over the tandoor and some nice new paint and accessories. This makes it much easier to eat in.
This is, in my opinion, one of the best Pakistani-Indian restaurants in the city for the food and the price. Pakistani Indian food is subtle-ly different from Indian food. Something about the mixture of spices. Yet it is close enough to work when the craving hits you, no matter who you are. Vegetarians may take issue with all the kababs hanging up to be smoked, in which case you can happily take advantage of its take-away service (or delivery if you live close by). It is in the Tenderloin and it’s open late so I’ve been known to go there at all hours. But as the night advances the number of colourful characters you could meet there will grow as well. (A flaming pink-haired and utterly plastered Irish soccer fan once poked Amey in the ribs and asked him why he was so tall, then promptly turned and walked into a wall.) To me, that’s all part of the fun of living in the city. Also, an establishment claiming to serve Pakistani-Indian food will almost always be cheaper than one serving Indian food. I’m not sure why this is.
on Jones Street between Geary and O’Farrell.