Thursday, December 14, 2000
Here was the plan. Chico, Zeppo and I (Harpo), would meet Groucho down at India''s Clay Oven for a foray into the mysterious world of curry and tandoori. Chico wanted us to wear turbans, but I talked him (her, actually) out of it.
As it turns out, Zeppo has been a fan of India''s Clay Oven--which is what a tandoor is, a huge, clay oven--for years. She comes for the same dish each time: a combination dinner, that is presented like a tasting menu with four or five different subdivisions on the plate. It''s kind of like a little community of food.
Groucho, who grew up as the daughter of missionaries, lived in India for five years. She has a native''s grasp of the food and becomes genuinely excited when remembering great examples of the authentic subcontinent cuisine. We just sat back and let her give the orders (no pun intended). That''s why she got to be Groucho that night.
Firstly, she was salivating (sorry, Groucho, perhaps that''s too powerful a word) for a bottle of Mirassou Petite Sirah from a wine list that is short and local. She felt the peppery undertones of the wine would nicely match the fire and flavor of the curries.
Zeppo and Chico went with a Ventana Gold Stripe Chardonnay. Both wines were priced fairly and served promptly. I was thinking along the lines of a nice frosty beer, something not too heavy, a refreshing beer, light, yet flavorful. To me, beer is best for Indian food and other spicy, big-flavored cuisine. I went along with Groucho and shared in the petite sirah.
We started by ordering the two samosas, both varieties on the menu. These pillows of pastry were stuffed with either strongly flavored lamb or vegetables. Both were tasty, although the veggie was too long on the cumin for Groucho. They were fun to dip in the two sauces, which hang out on the table throughout the meal. One is hot, the other is not. I like to mix them.
Now some Americans are a bit turned off by Indian food. The smells and tastes are so different from ours that it becomes too long a stretch for many to submit and enjoy. Others are not ready for the power of the spices. I say to these people: Come on, give it a shot.
Ask the folks at whatever temple of Indian food in which you may find yourself to introduce you to some of the less exotic stuff. Then you can experiment with more challenging items until you find your level. It''s really not any more unusual than Thai or Chinese food--we just don''t get at it enough. In fact, the relative unpopularity and misunderstanding of the cuisine explains why, for the longest time, India''s Clay Oven was the only game in town.
Some feel that the food here was always just okay, nothing special. But everybody was grateful for the fact that it existed. Recently, another Indian joint opened up fairly close to this spot, offering a bit of a challenge. The results have been an improved overall level of quality at India''s Clay Oven.
One thing India''s Clay Oven definitely has goin'' on is the location. Even though it is on the second floor--second floor restaurants are trouble--the space is gorgeous. High, angular ceilings and huge windows highlight the open room. Spacious table placements and colorful, authentic Indian artworks add to the overall comfort level. This space would be outstanding as any type of restaurant.
The service throughout was friendly, efficient and blended nicely with the total experience. Although the food was not spectacular, it was certainly representative, with some items qualifying as outstanding and others as just average.
The way it works is, you get a plate bearing a large portion of Basmati rice--one of the greatest rices on Earth--some lettuce, tomato and two pieces of naan, which is unleavened bread cooked by slapping it along the side of the tandoor oven, as well as the all-important raita.
Raita is a yogurt dip used to regulate the fire in the food. When things get too hot, you have a dip or two of raita and everything cools right down. Some folks--Zeppo is one--mix it right into the whole shebang. It''s very clever stuff and works beautifully. Your entree comes in a separate bowl alongside. You mix stuff together according to your feel and there you have it. I like to be able to adjust my proportions. (Who wouldn''t want to adjust his or her proportions?)
We had three different entrees. Chicken vindaloo, chicken cooked in a hot spicy chili sauce with potatoes, was one. Bhindi masala, seasoned okra cooked with onions and spices, was the second. And mataar paneer (I think), the last, consisted of peas, homemade cottage cheese cubes and spices. Everything was pretty good.
The chicken in the vindaloo was tender and the spicy chili sauce was wahoo spicy-nicy. The sweat was soaking my scalp with that one. The mataar paneer was pretty interesting, with the tofu-like cottage cheese cubes picking up the rich flavors of the curry. And the okra--man, that was smoking. Somehow they managed to cook out that sliminess that makes okra a bit funky. It was snappy, spicy and had beautifully done onions flavoring it. I could have eaten a whole bowl of the stuff.
All in all, the meal was a success. It was also very reasonably priced. The four of us had the complete meal, along with two bottles of wine, two beers and a mango lassi (a very cool, frothy yogurt beverage) for under $100.
Oh, I ended up ordering a beer with my entrees. It was Kingfisher Premium Lager, an Indian beer that wonderfully matched the food. Just be careful about filling up. Between the naan, the rice, some of the dishes with potatoes and the beer, my belly was bulging as we waddled on home.
India''s Clay Oven is located at 150 Del Monte in Monterey (373-2529) and is open every day for lunch and dinner.