When Emily and I go to a restaurant, we ask a simple question: could I make this dish better? Usually, this is really important when we review food in our comfort zone (american, french, etc.). But when it comes to ethnic cuisine, we are not experts and usually the answer to the question above is no. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate ethnic food and pick out the good places.
This just so happened when we went to Darbar, an Indian-Pakistani restaurant on Polk between California and Pine. We’ve been there many times and it is consistently a pleasurable experience. The atmosphere is nice and warm with cheesy murals and photos of Pakistan coating the walls. There’s never a wait for a table and the service is usually pretty good, although they tend to be significantly slower when the room is more than half full with patrons. They’ve shown improvement in this regard over the half a dozen times we’ve dined there. Obviously these flaws are not enough to keep Emily and I away. Darbar has some serious advantages too, namely the food and the price.
We have sampled most of the menu at Darbar and settled on some favorites. From the appetizer section, the Vegetable samosas ($2) are very good with a very crisp crust and a satisfying potato filling. They are very balanced and the tamarind sauce and mint chutney accompany them really nicely. Before I continue, I would like to say that the mint chutney at Darbar is really excellent, one of the best I’ve had. It’s spicy, acidic, and yet still tastes of fresh mint; I could put it on just about anything. On our most recent visit, we ordered a Seekh Kebab ($2.5) from the pakistani side of the menu. The spicy, ground beef came out sizzling on a hot cast iron skillet in all its clichéd glory, served with onions and lemon. The meat itself was a bit dry, but the flavors were all there; the sweetness of the charring onion, the spices of the meat, and the acidity of the lemon worked together beautifully.
The main courses continue the trend of value and taste. Darbar has a nice selection of curries and rice dishes as well as six varieties of naan and a dozen special menu items. Everything we’ve had has been good, simple Indian food at a good price. The creamier curries tend to be a bit mild in spice and flavor, but you can ask them to bump up the heat if you so desire. Emily’s favorite dish is the Mater Paneer ($6), which is fresh cheese and peas cooked in a cream based curry. The peas add a nice sweetness to the dish, which counters the spice of the sauce and the slight saltiness of the cheese. We really love paneer chesse in this context; it is a relatively dry cheese with a slightly chewy texture. This lack of creaminess is what makes it work so well with this curry. My personal favorite dish is the Sindhi Biryani ($8); tender pieces of lamb cooked in curry, served with spicy saffron rice and riata. Unlike the cream based curries, this dish comes pretty spicy. The lamb is tender but sometimes a tiny bit dry, and the riata is very tasty, but not the best I’ve had. It’s the rice that makes this dish; the blend of spices (cardamom, clove, etc.) excite the palate with every bite. Even with the small flaws, the excellent rice brings the whole dish together in a way that really works.
To sum it up, Darbar is great Indian food and an excellent value (a dinner for two tends to cost $25-30 after tax and tip, and we leave with enough leftovers for lunch the next day). Some downsides are the occasional service issues and the lack of a liquor license (although they do make a great mango lassie for $2). The charm and quality of food definitely make up for any mistakes we’ve encountered.
Dessert after Darbar:
One confession regarding the above post: we’ve never had dessert at Darbar. On or most recent trip this didn’t change, but we did try a crepe place right down the street. Crepes Ooh La La is located at 1220 Polk St. They have a large selection of both sweet and savory crepes and their prices are decent too. Fortunately, this is not one of those trendy, sit down places; it’s more of a hole in the wall with two crepe burners in the front window and a counter in the back with tables in between. I love a simple butter, sugar, and lemon juice crepe, so Emily and I shared one. For $3, it was pretty tasty. We got it to go so all the delicious juices ran to the bottom leaving the upper half a bit dry. Overall, it was a nice experience and a pretty good crepe. I would like to go back and try some of their other varieties and maybe have one in house to see if there is a better distribution of juices. One word of warning though: certain additions (like strawberries for example) are pretty pricey, so some crepes end up being quite expensive. But, since I haven’t tried any of their other crepes I can’t comment on them, so who knows, they might be worth it.