Amber India Fails to Impress

I’d been looking forward to dinner at Amber India ever since I saw they were opening here in SF.  Several of my colleagues have sung the praises of the original Mountain View location.

Forgot to take pictures of the food - but here's our lovely view of the waiters' station. The trashcan is a classy touch...

Arrived for our 7:30 Friday reservation and was shown to what is certainly the worst table in the house.  It’s at the bottom of the stairs down from the entrance, so there was a near-constant cold draft as people came and went through the front door.  I was actually surprised that my mom and sister accepted the table, since they are usually big freaks like me about being too near the door.  In addition to the Arctic breeze, the table was between the waiter’s station and the entrance to the kitchen, so there was a constant stream of servers and bussers jostling the backs of our chairs.

Despite the hubbub surrounding our table, my other sister and I had trouble getting drinks when we arrived just after the first round of drinks was served.  After 10-15 minutes waiting, I finally flagged someone down who sent a manager over to take our drink orders.  He rather unhelpfully pointed out that our waiter was busy taking orders from a large party seated two tables over — sorry, dude, not my problem.  I just want a Pimm’s Cup please.

At any rate, drinks finally in hand (the Pimm’s Cup was decidedly mediocre), we decided on what to eat.  We started off with a couple of appetizers: Aloo Peas Samosas and Galouti Kebab.  The samosas were straightforward and tasty, though only lukewarm.  The kebabs, patties of spicy ground lamb, were savory with a spicy kick.  I found the texture a bit odd — the lamb so finely ground, it was almost like a paté.  I prefer something with a bit more of a meaty texture…  These were rather mushy.

Another oddity: each of the appetizers had four pieces, though five of us were dining (Chris having shown up just after I finally got my drink).  I was a bit surprised that our waiter didn’t offer to bump up the size of our orders.  Not the end of the world, obviously, but a clumsy missed opportunity to make things easier  for us (and to add a few extra bucks to the bill).

For dinner, we shared Butter Chicken, Lamb Biriyiani and Subz Elaichi Korma (a mixed vegetable curry), along with a couple of types of naan.  The butter chicken was lovely — chunks of wonderfully tender chicken in a thick, russet-colored sauce that packed a good wallop of heat.  Pretty addictive actually — I mopped the bowl with the delicious, piping-hot naan.  The special chili-thyme naan was an interesting twist on the classic.  I quite liked it, though one of my sisters thought it was too pizza-like — but then, what does she know?

The lamb biriyani was brought to the table in a brass bowl, the top sealed with dough that the waiter cut into and removed just before serving.  The dish itself was serviceable — chunks of lean and flavorful lamb distributed generously throughout the  seasoned rice.  I thought the use of saffron in the dish was a bit heavy-handed — it overwhelmed the other seasonings.

The vegetables, served in a green cardamom sauce with nuts, were very good.  The vegetables, including cauliflower and peas, were cooked tender-crisp and the creamy sauce was zippy, with underlying heat and a bit of sweetness.

For dessert, I had Gulab Jamun.  They were just a notch below “meh” — a bit rubbery and missing the creaminess and echoes of crispiness that are found in my favorite renditions of this dish.

The service, besides being slow, was peculiar and unpolished.  After writing down our order, our waiter asked if we wanted rice with dinner – I pointed out that we’d already ordered biriyani, so I thought we were all set on rice…  It bordered on “do you want fries with that?”, i.e. perfunctory and asked just for the sake of asking rather than suggesting something that would enhance our meal.

As the waiters and bussers scurried back-and-forth to the kitchen, there was some noticeable fooling around and joshing with one another.  Far be it from me to tell people they can’t have fun at work, but it just seemed a  bit unprofessional given both the high-prices and reinforced the to me the slapdash nature of the service.

I ordered an armagnac with dessert, after seeing it offered it on the dessert menu.  The waiter returned shortly after I ordered, advising that they didn’t have any armagnac — would I care to have the Daron armagnac instead?  Huh?  Weird, and again seems to point to a lack of professionalism on the part of the wait staff.

The menu outside the entrance, pinned up with thumbtacks. Again with the classiness...

When he brought the bill, our waiter delivered it with a flourish and referred to it as “the best part of the meal.”  Oh, OK, dude — if you say so.  The bill included an 18% gratuity — which is fine I guess.  Though our waiter didn’t bother to point out that tip was included  (tacky) — and no one recalled seeing it on the menu.  And a mandatory gratuity for a party of five?  Really?

Overall, I enjoyed the food.  Certainly there were some stumbles, though if the appetizers had been hot rather than tepid, the missteps would have been less noticeable.  That being said, I thought the meal was overpriced — the service and the ambience were simply not up to my standards for a resturant charging over $20 per dish.

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