Monday Miam-Miam: A Trip to India Without Leaving Berkeley

The legendary downtown of Berkeley, a few short blocks that circle the internationally renowned university, is still a place where you can buy incense sticks, patchouli oil, Indian clothes, find any music from the 60s and 70s at Rasputin, meet a striking blend of nerdy students, activists, and homeless people, and bump into an impromptu protest. Downtown, however, is only one of several neighborhoods in the most unique city east of San Francisco.

My daughter studied for six years at the University of California in Berkeley.

Over time she introduced her family to the staples of her student’s life in the Bear territory. Away from Ramen and Cheerios, she mostly ate Thai and Indian, authentic and yet affordable food. Now that she works on her PhD, miles away from California, she still evocates her favorite restaurants with nostalgia and always arranges a visit when she returns to Berkeley.

As much as her dad enjoyed sharing lunch or dinner with his daughter in the most popular students’ holes, he was soon on the lookout for a more sophisticated restaurant where we would celebrate her upcoming graduations but also other family events.

This is thus within the cozy walls of Ajanta that we started to gather mid May to celebrate our family combo: graduation/birthday/Mother’s Day.

Photo credit: Solanoshop.com

Ajanta is located on Solano Avenue, less than three miles from the university and yet a world apart. Higher on the hill, less rambunctious, and more bourgeois than her loud colorful sibling Telegraph Avenue, Solano Avenue straddles the cities of Berkeley and Albany. Solano is home to many shops and several distinct restaurants, the most interesting being Ajanta, an Indian restaurant that opened in the 1990s.

Until I moved to California my best experiences with Indian food had happened in London. In fact, I still remain partial to London when it comes to Indian restaurants. Yet Ajanta matches the ambiance and quality I like so much there. The Berkeley-based restaurant is named after the Ajanta Caves, famous for their paintings and rock-cut sculptures from ancient India. Art inspired from this area is in fact displayed throughout the restaurant, adding to the authenticity and warmth of the place.

From the second you push the heavy wood door you leave California to step in India.

Photo credit: Open Table

The smells of ground Indian spices spiral around you. In fact you can order the Shanti’s Box of Spices from Ajanta restaurant. Bliss and peace assured.

 

Photo credit: Ajanta

But we all know that it is a welcoming smile that makes us feel home. The host walks gracioulsy each guest or party to a table covered with a white tablecloth. I don’t know for you, but I favor real tableclothes and napkins to paper ones. They add the perfect sophisticated touch, although nothing is stiff at Ajanta. It remains Berkeley after all, and the guests in the room are indeed a mix of university professors, old time locals, and families with students, all casually dressed and comfortable in a diverse and often international setting.

 

Photo credit: Ajanta

Food at Ajanta represents all of India. The menu changes every month, some dishes are discontinued to make room for new ones, and specifies the region of origin for each appetizer and entree.

As a family we always arrive for lunch. We like to mix and match our orders so we can sample different dishes. The slices of eggplant pan-fried, perfectly spiced and served topped with a thick yogurt sauce remain a family all time favorite. One single order is enough and everybody can taste.

Photo credit: Ajanta

French are renowned for their high quality bread. I confirm that French bread is indeed exceptional, yet I’ve been unfaithful to my native land many times in the States, mostly because of Naan. Naan at Ajanta always exceeds my expectations. My favorite remains their Paneer Naan, which is stuffed with paneer cheese and mint. My son being very partial to naan too, we often end up ordering an assortment. Just for the two of us.

Photo credit: Ajanta

With my husband we only go to Ajanta for dinner. We either order a la carte or opt for the chef tasting menu for two, which comes in a vegetarian or non-vegetarian version. You are offered three appetizers and four main dishes, smaller portions than a la carte, and a choice of one dessert among the four possibilities.

My favorite meal in an Indian restaurant includes lamb. At Ajanta, lamb is offered as a curry, as kabobs or still as rib chops.

Photo credit: Ajanta

This month, one of the featured new dishes, is Sufed Maas, a classic lamb dish from Rajasthan, the state where Lachu, the executive chef, is from. This is in his words the description of the dish:

“Sufed Maas derives its name from the white color (“sufed” in Hindi) of the sauce. All of the ingredients used in the sauce are white: onions, ginger, coconut milk, white poppy seeds, white pepper powder, blanched ground almonds, yogurt, cream, and cardamom powder. The boneless, defatted, cubed leg of lamb is sautéed and then simmered in the sauce until tender. Generally made for royalty, this is a rich, tasty and satisfying dish.”

Made for royalty? No excuse for not ordering  🙂

Ajanta is one of the very few restaurants where my husband and I never share dessert. Most likely we will trade a spoon of our pic, though. My two favorites desserts at Ajanta are the Kulfi (a frozen dessert made with thick milk, pistachios, flavored with cardamom ) and the saffron pistachio ice cream.

At Ajanta I never order wine. Beer or tea are better choices with Indian food. I don’t drink beer but love Masala Chai, which goes really well with any Indian dish.

All dishes at Ajanta are cooked with great attention to the  ingredients, the flavors, and the presentation. Whether you are vegetarian or an omnivore, a vegan or gluten sensitive or simply a fan of Indian spiced cuisine there is something for you at Ajanta.

Photo credit: Ajanta

Photo credit: Ajanta

Most of all, 100% attention dedicated to your satisfaction.

If you happen to be in Berkeley between June 9 and June 15, don’t miss Ajanta! Stop by to wish them Happy 24th anniversary. You will be greeted in return with a free glass of wine or beer. And a smile, too.

Photo credit: Solanoshop.com

 

 

Before or after dinner, stop at Pegasus Books, also on Solano Avenue, almost directly across Ajanta. This is one of two Pegasus bookstores in Berkeley. I’m more familiar with Pegasus Downtown on Shattuck Avenue, walking distance from the university, from my favorite movie theater, and other places I like in this part of town.

Lesson learned:

After my last visit at Pegasus, I realized that I must adopt Ajanta’s strategy: put away some older books to make room for new.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. I know this restaurant well. Excellent place to share a meal and a great location for exploring.

  2. Mmm, naan. I make naan, when I make curry, which is only a few times a year. When we eat Indian food out, I generally eat a gob of naan, some soup, and taste whatever’s brought to the table.
    Ajanta seems like a friendly place, one of those where you don’t just go to eat, but to enjoy the atmosphere and the hosts as well. Nice share 🙂

  3. Mmmmmmm, Indian food! My husband doesn’t like curry, Masala, or any kind of spice, ALAS! So Indian food is a real treat for me. I enjoyed just reading about it and looking at the beautiful pictures. Joey gave me a recipe for Moo’s Naan, which I MUST make!

  4. Indian, probably my favorite food, Evelyne. And, like you, I’ve enjoyed it in both London and Berkeley. And many, many other places. Rasputin… The Cafe Mediterranean next door was where I hung out in the mid-60s. Just across the road (now closed) was Cody’s Bookstore, one of the all time greats. –Curt

  5. I’m not a fan of many of the spices used in Indian food, but growing up in a large, extended Syrian family, I have a fondness for many similar dishes, including the flatbread. The photos are making me seriously hungry (and I think I ate earlier tonight).

    • I’m sure that you got to enjoy delicious food from your family’s country of origin. When we lived close to San Francisco, one of my daughters’ best friend’s family was from Syria. I got along really well with the little girl’s mom and she often made me taste what she would cook for dinner. Since I like all forms of bread I was a fan of her flatbread too, but I also enjoyed the way she cooked lamb or prepared hummus. Sorry for making you hungry 🙂 I am too when I write these weekly posts!

  6. Berkeley was my favorite place in California. It was like dropping back to the 1960s.

    • The perimeter around the university holds some remnants from the 1960s. But the city expands beyond with other distinct neighborhoods. I like the proximity of the bay. The marina for example offers nice walks, just steps away from downtown. This are countless places to eat and also several independent bookstores, something I especially love. Thank you for stopping by, Marilyn.

  7. I enjoyed this post! It made me hungry for Indian food (which I can’t get where I live now in Wisconsin) and it also made me very nostalgic! I know all the places you mention here, except, unfortunately, the restaurant itself. When I lived in Berkeley (1993-1995), the only Indian restaurant I ever went to was on Oxford, I think–and it was wonderful, but I don’t remember the name. I’m sorry we missed this one, which would have been brand new back then. My friends and I also loved the Long Life Veggie House, which I think was also on Solano, though come to think of it, it might have been University. It’s been so long! anyway I enjoyed this–and congratulations to your daughter! I graduated on Mother’s Day in 1995! Go Bears!

    • Thank you for stopping by, Melinda.
      I’ve only been to Madison in Wisconsin. Which I liked a lot actually. We ate in a small restaurant in an artsy student part of town. The food was great and the ambiance in and out was filled with good vibes as well.
      In 1995 we left California for New England and came back five years later. So I don’t know the restaurants you mention. There are so many in Berkeley!
      Congrats on being a Cal alumna.
      Bears rock! 🙂

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