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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Currying Flavor: The sister and brother team Mona Dhar and Sumeer Karihaloo co-own Pamposh.

Ghee Whiz

Pamposh Indian restaurant is a jewel in the crown

By Heather Irwin

There's a running joke in Manhattan's East Village about the Sixth Street curry houses there. Lined up, one restaurant after another--Banjara, Bombay, Goa, Tajmahal--rumor has it the dozens of restaurants in Little India share a single ghee-soaked kitchen. Having visited the tandoori ghetto for a late-night nosh more times than I'd like to admit, I can assure that there is a certain, well, sameness, to it all.

In fact, one wonders sometimes if just about every Indian restaurant in the States doesn't share the same kitchen. After making my way across the country from Indian buffet to Indian buffet there's only so much dried-out tandoori and creamed-spinach something-or-other one can eat without wondering, "Wait, didn't I just have this in Portland?"

Which is why I had no unusually high hopes about Pamposh, which opened six weeks ago in Santa Rosa's Mission Plaza--alarmingly close to a McDonald's, no less. Tandoori, uh huh. Vindaloo, right. Samosas? Check.

However, the first sign that things might be different were the two tables of diners sitting next to us who--how shall I put this?--looked like they knew the territory. So when a well-fed auntie asked for a bib to cover her ample chest as she dug into the vindaloo, I thought: we're at the right place.

I also appreciate good service more than most--meaning that I really despise lousy servers more than most. At Pamposh, you're made to feel like the maharaja. Giving menu suggestions and food pairings and even offering to help us pair wine, our server gently led us through the array of choices and gave outstanding guidance in our final decisions. Then again, maybe our Drew Barrymore-esque server was just flirting with the Boy, who, after having his arm twisted into an uncomfortable position by me, admits to perhaps unconsciously flirting back. Ah, well.

The menu is completely à la carte, meaning you can mix and match a variety of side dishes, appetizers and entrées. This can be a wonderful thing if you know what you're doing--and disastrous if you don't. It's easy at Pamposh to opt for guidance from someone who can help avoid 10-spice flavor pileups. Less is sometimes much, much more.

Additionally, Pamposh doesn't force-heat greenhorns into a taste-bud-searing meal masking bad food with sheer firepower. All dishes (except the lamb vindaloo) are served mild, unless the diner asks for medium (which is reasonably spicy) or hot (you're on your own). The vindaloo is served hot, unless a mild version is requested.

Dinner (and the restaurant currently only serves dinner, with a lunch service in the works) began with an amuse-bouche of crisp spiced crackers and a tomato-avocado chutney. A mango lassi ($4) is a great way to start your palate off--cool, creamy yogurt and mango mixed into a frothy, foamy mocktail.

We decided to try the mixed appetizer platter ($7.25), featuring aloo tikki (potato patties spiced with herbs and onions), mixed vegetable pakora (fried vegetable fritters) and chicken pakora. The plate came with both sweet tamarind and mint chutneys for dipping. The fritters were the standout winner, crisp and crunchy without the usual gut-busting grease and batter.

The wine list is small and relatively unimpressive. A better choice with spicy Indian food is a bottle of imported Indian beer. Fundoo!

Naan, a clay-baked flatbread, is a staple of Indian dining and a virtual requirement for sopping up all the various sauces. We decided to try the onion kulcha ($3), a naan stuffed with onions and fresh cilantro, which went perfectly with our pan-fried curries. The bread is a warm and chewy circle of wonderment you rip apart to reveal onions and herbs inside. Thin and slightly doughy, it is the perfect foil to stealthy sauces that threaten to return themselves uneaten to the kitchen. Dip, swirl, scoop--it's all perfectly kosher.

Pamposh offers a number of veggie-friendly dishes, including dal makhani ($8.95), made of slow-cooked lentils, and sag paneer ($9.95), a homemade cheese cooked with spinach and a creamy tomato sauce. The cheese is firm, almost tofulike, and has a mild taste that complements the acidity of the tomatoes and takes on the flavors of coriander and cumin.

We opted away from the simple tandooris--meat cooked traditionally in a clay tandoori oven--for pan-fried curries with savory sauces. The prawns in apricot sauce ($15.95) were savory in a deep red-orange sauce that hints at rather than accosts with fruit. Mixed with coconut milk, it is a creamy tonic both hot and soothing.

Lamb vindaloo ($13.95) is a dish familiar to Indian diners, fragranced with the darker, more mysterious spices of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Served with potatoes, Pamposh's vindaloo sauce should be ordered medium to hot, as the mild version ends up flat. In both, the lamb was tougher than a vindaloo should be--which is nearly falling apart.

But what's had me pining away for days, unable to focus at certain moments, was the chicken tikka masala. The dish was a blend of tandoori chicken with a creamed curry sauce that makes the eyes tear with pleasure. In fact, the Boy has pointedly asked me to stop saying "Tiiiiiiiikkkka!" at every opportunity, pointing out that some moments are just plain inappropriate for the screaming of "Tikka masala!" But believe me when I say it was that good.

Don't forget to order at least one dish of the Pamposh rice ($1.95) for each person, which is a light basmati rice with sweet peas and roasted cashews. Additionally, the mango chutney ($2.50) is a necessary flavor agent to any Indian dish.

The only brow raiser for me was the relatively small size of the entrées compared to their price, which tended to be $12 and up. However, both the Boy and I agreed that we probably couldn't have eaten more. I also started getting annoyed by the piped-in Bollywood music, but was told that I was merely being a curmudgeon.

On each visit, we were far too stuffed to even consider dessert, and no amount of flirtation could convince us otherwise. However, on future trips, we may try to control our appetites in order to leave room for the homemade saffron custard and berries ($6).

Then again, when the tikka calls, one must obey.

Pamposh Restaurant is currently open for dinner only, Tuesday-Sunday, 5-9pm. 52 Mission Circle, Ste. 10, Santa Rosa. 707.538.3367.

[ | Metroactive Central | ]

From the July 21-27, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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