Sitting on maroon silk cushions under a life-size mural of the Hindu goddess Kali Mata, while eating Naan bread with Masala sauce and enjoying a mango sangria might sound like an exotic trip to South Asia; but rather, it’s what you will find at Gourmet India in the Gaslamp District of San Diego.
On Fourth Avenue next to Horton Plaza, Gourmet India is tucked into the street level of a larger building like so many other restaurants downtown, but the scented suggestion of ginger and grilled meats caught my attention from two blocks away. Walking up to the restaurant, I first noticed the diners outside enjoying steaming bowls of food family-style, but my guest and I chose to sit inside to be near the kitchen, where we feasted first with our eyes.
The far end of the restaurant boasted a large flat screen television playing Bollywood films, surrounded by peacock feathers. Deep red draperies and walls to match, jeweled candle holders, and ample seating for traditional table-and-chair dining filled the restaurant in a way that still managed to offer privacy to the guests. Adventurous types who want to relax into throw pillows and cushions can sit floor level, where the meal feels like a journey -- a culinary experience by the warm scents of masala and Indian music playing low enough for discussion.
I barely had time to remove my coat when the Lentil Papadum with sweet tomato chutney was placed in front of me. Cumin seeds were baked into the thin crackers, which were crisp and light. The sweet tomato chutney is one of six offered at the restaurant; but for the lentil papadum, the sweetness balanced on the nutty, wafer-like cracker’s assertive black pepper and cumin notes.
Had I not been relaxed into the comfort of my cushions and pillows, the scents wafting into the dining room combined with the variety of the menu would have placed me on the edge of my seat with anticipation. A Nirvana Sangria of fresh mango puree with sweet wine and strawberry slices appeared next on our table. More sangrias were offered as drink specials, but my Nirvana Sangria (the color of gold with the bold pink of the berries) was serendipitous. I sipped the libation as I counted nineteen vegetarian dishes alone, eight different kinds of Naan bread, and decided on Samosas and Lamb Naan as appetizers.
Thin as the Lamb Naan was, an explosion of flavor was packed within the two layers of the bread. Mango chutney was the sweet accompaniment to the savory Lamb Naan. The brightness of cilantro and the richness of minced lamb captured in bread and baked within a tandoor reminded me what I first discovered about Indian cuisine: it is a symphony of many herbs and spices that deliver complex, but not complicated food that is pensive as it is pleasing. Every ingredient has a higher purpose, and the dish becomes more than the sum of its parts. You may not be able to determine exactly which herb lends the mellowness or which spice contributes to the depth, but you will not care; the collective result of Gourmet India’s fare tempts the palate to try more, and then more.
The Samosas, traditional Indian turnovers, were in the shape of ice cream cones, which made them ideal for dipping into the deep brown tamarind chutney -- this earthy sauce may have been my favorite. Cut open, the samosas revealed green peas and velvety potato that provided a soft, steamy interior in contrast to the crunch of the exterior. This appetizer, though victorious in flavor, was truly a triumph of texture.
In between courses, I noticed the owner, Gubi Khinda, talking to the other patrons and calling some by first name. I had no trouble believing Gourmet India has a following of regulars who laugh on the outside patio while drinking India Special Reserve, people who want a dependably delicious experience -- they all find what they are looking for here.
We were asked which level of heat we preferred for our main courses, from 1 through 4: 1 being mild, 4 being extra spicy. We decided on 1 and 2, because we did not want to miss out on the experience of the heat Indian cuisine can offer.
The Chicken Saag and Tandoori Chicken arrived to our table next. The Tandoori Chicken was steaming and I picked up cardamom from the Chicken Saag. The Chicken Saag is an approach to spinach and chicken that delighted us - large pieces of chicken are cooked within spinach that takes on a creamy mouthfeel. I am certain that a list of spices and herbs went into this dish, but I focused on the mellow sweetness of the cardamom as I ate the Chicken Saag, feeling indulged although the dish was not heavy. It was chicken and spinach after all, but the opposite of bland and typical.
Tandoori Chicken, another traditional Indian dish, transported us to an outdoor spice market and faraway land on one plate. Chicken is marinated in yogurt with spices (I picked up chili powder and masala spice, possibly turmeric), and barbequed in a clay oven. Just being served Tandoori Chicken was a culinary greeting. While I waited for it to cool down, I enjoyed the amber color of the meat that is a result of the turmeric and a familiarity of barbeque chicken known to San Diegans like me. Not to be outdone, next to the chicken were pickled okra and carrots, piquant and crisp. The yogurt and spice marinade made the Tandoori Chicken moist, while the subtle heat lingered on the palate. The taste and texture are equivalent to the visual impact of steam and color. Gourmet India’s Tandoori Chicken permeates the senses on all levels.
One of the reasons I have an appreciation for Indian food is that its complexity is balanced with logical flavor pairings. Garlic Naan (naan bread topped with minced garlic and fresh cilantro) and Olive Naan (naan sprinkled with green olives) were brought to us with a bowl of steaming masala sauce. Pleased as we were with everything we had eaten so far, the naan bread with the masala sauce from Gourmet India is something I wish I could have on my table each day of my life. I asked what made the masala sauce so divine, and after the sixth ingredient was listed in the succession of “tomatoes, ginger, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, cream...,” I stopped trying to count. I felt foolish for thinking masala sauce was similar to marinara, but it is true that Indian naan bread and masala sauce together represent a common denominator of elements found in all cuisines, only better.
My sangria was gone, the masala and naan were disappearing quickly, but the hospitality of Gourmet India was at its height of the evening. The staff refilled our water glasses prior to each course being served, gauging our facial expressions for any sensitivity to the heat level we selected. Spice level 1 had a mere hint of heat, and 2 made me grateful for the refills. But the heat never obscured the flavors of the dishes we tried.
Gourmet India’s menu has 18 vegetarian selections, and more are offered in the House Specialties and Biryani sections of the menu as well. For a vegetarian option, we selected the Bindi Masala: a dish of okra and tomatoes also redolent of ginger, garlic, chili powder and coriander. A generous bowlful of rich green okra and diced red tomatoes were accented by sautéed onion and topped with a handful of chopped green herbs. The vegetables were caramelized and held their texture while the ginger and coriander brought the dish home to a refreshing completion. The Bindi Masala was hearty enough to be a complete meal (with some naan, of course).
About the time I decided I could not eat any more, Gubi sat down beside us and we casually discussed Gourmet India’s origins and plans for the future. I asked how long he had known the chef. “All my life, he’s my father,” he responded. From the full occupancy of the dining room on a Tuesday night to the classically executed dishes of a native country, everything about Gourmet India suggests that what began as the aspirations of a father and son have resulted in success.
Then they gave me more food. Who could resist dumplings with rose water? Not me, not at this gem on Fourth Avenue. Gulab Jamun was the final culinary song of the night for us. Rose water and sugar syrup surrounding soft, round dumplings of powdered milk topped with coconut crumbs was an exotic departure from usual restaurant desserts. I could have closed my eyes and pretended I was eating bread pudding, but this dish, like all of the others, was visual, palatable, and aromatic - deliciously distinct.
A meal, and restaurant, deserves praise when guests cannot wait to return for more. I have thought of Indian food each day since dining at Gourmet India, where the flavors and culinary history are as rich and deep as the list of ingredients.