Amber India has the unique distinction of being the only Indian restaurant, and one of the few "ethnic" restaurants, to consistently make it into the San Francisco Chronicle's "Top 100 Restaurants" list. As I love Indian food, I've been curious to try Amber India for a number of years, though I've read definite mixed reviews of the place in other fora. I finally decided to go there for my birthday this year, figuring that the restaurant would be child friendly enough to take Mika. So I called my friends Lola and Ignatius and set up a dinner date for a Monday in May 2004.
We arrived early for our 7:30 reservation and Lola and Iggy were still not there. Instead of showing us to our table, the host let us wait in their lobby. This worked out well for us as Michaela was in a very active mood and the lobby was large enough that she could run and jump with impunity. When the host finally invited us to our table, we actually declined and decided to wait until our full party was there.
That proved to be a very good choice. The tables are small and close together so that there was no space for Mika to hang out when not in her high chair. The place is quite child-friendly, though. There were several other babies and toddlers dining there that night. The restaurant is also loud enough that a child's spirited voice wouldn't stand out, but not so loud that you can't talk with your table mates.
The restaurant is quite nice, even though it's at a strip mall. It's divided into several small dining rooms separated from each other by arched doors and windows. The walls are decorated with sober Indian images and the soft light could give it a romantic atmosphere (if you weren't dining with or around a toddler).
The menu includes traditional North Indian dishes as well as some more exotic fare. The food is quite pricy for an Indian restaurant, with non-vegetarian appetizers for $6-12, tandoori dishes at $10-27, and other non-vegetarian dishes for $14-17. It's about twice as expensive as our favorite Indian restaurant. It wasn't worth it.
We ordered the Assorted Tandoori Hors d'Oeuvres (An assortment of chicken tikka, seekh kabab & anari kabab - $12) as a shared appetizer. It was a nicely sized portion. We all got to have a bite of each of the three meats, and the meats were pretty good. The chicken was a bit dry, and the tandoori spicing was too pungent (spicy and sour) for my taste, but it wasn't bad.
Our entrees were less successful. We ordered the butter chicken, the chicken tikka masala, the frontier kabab and a lamb curry, whose name I can't remember, which we hadn't had before. None of us had had butter chicken before either. I'd seen the dish in every restaurant menu when I was in India, but I had never tried it because the whole concept of chicken in a butter sauce didn't appeal to me. However, most reviewers so highly recommended the butter chicken at Amber India that we had to try it. The general consensus was that the dish wasn't very good. Again, I can't compare it to other butter chickens, but I found the sauce to be too mild and not very interesting. Iggy, who liked it the best, appreciated its subtlety - the rest of us didn't. Though milky in flavor, the butter sauce was quite heavy. This is not a dish you can eat too much of.
We all liked the chicken tikka masala better. Its tomato-based sauce was quite rich and had a disconcerting chocolate aftertaste which reminded me of a Mexican mole - though others thought it tasted like a fusion of Italian and Indian cuisine. I would have appreciated more sweetness and less tartness in the sauce, but all in all I found it quite eatable though I wouldn't order it again (in the very unlikely event I'll ever go to Amber India again).
The lamb curry, the name of which I can't recall, was a perplexing dish. Even as I was eating it, I couldn't think of one single word (or bunch of words) to describe it. It was flavorful enough, certainly not bland, but I have no idea what it tasted of. It wasn't an unpleasant taste, though again the dish was a bit too oily, just a completely unremarkable and unmemorable one.
Finally, the frontier kebab, a rack of lamb marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic and spices, got mixed reviews from the table. Lola and Mike liked the taste, though Mike found it a bit chalky. Iggy didn't like it at all, and I thought it was a waste of good lamb. It tasted fine, though again it was a bit too sour for my taste, but it was dry and you couldn't taste the lamb at all. A rack of lamb is such an expensive dish (and this one was $22) that it seems a waste to dry it up by cooking it at such high temperatures and disguise its taste with so many spices.
We also had a garlic & basil naan and a frontier naan with dinner. Both were fine but not remarkable. On the plus side, they weren't burnt (as so often naan seems to be), on the minus, their flavor was too mild.
The food at Amber India is obviously of higher quality than that at a regular Indian restaurant. We didn't like the flavors, but we could recognize that the dishes had been made with fresh spices and offered a complexity not often found at Indian restaurants. If it wasn't for the fact that none of us four liked it - and that we all have such different palates - I would ascribe my reaction to food preferences and still recommend that you give it a try. As it is, I cannot.
Service throughout the night was fine - our dishes took a little bit too long to come to the table (we had to ask for them) - but that could very well have been the kitchen's fault. The total bill came out to about $120 before tip.
2290 El Camino Real, #9
Mountain View, CA 94040
M-Su 11:30 am - 2:30 pm, 5-10 pm