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Friday, July 14, 2006

Restaurant Review: Junnoon


It's been a while since I've been as excited about a new restaurant as I am about Junnoon, the Indian fusion eatery that opened in Palo Alto back in February.   The concept is upscale, well-executed cuisine that cleverly fuses Western ingredients with Indian influences, and it's one that has never before been successfuly pulled off in the Bay Area.   Sure, there are pan-Asian restaurants such as Betelnut and Ponzu that try to give a nod to India.   But most of these places put a simple samosa, tandoori dish, or naan/roti selection on the menu and call it a day.   And as for the few places that actually have tried to present an entire menu of Indian fusion cuisine, none has truly soared.   Junnoon does.

The other reason for my enthusiasm has to do with Junnoon's location.   The peninsula has generally had a lackluster restaurant scene for as long as I can remember, and Palo Alto -- where I've worked for nearly a decade -- is certainly no exception.   For many years, the only excellent dining establishment in town was Evvia, the Greek restaurant that's the older sibling to San Francisco's Kokkari.   That changed a few years ago with the opening of Tamarine, a sophisticated Vietnamese restaurant that just recently spawned San Francisco's Bong Su.   Junnoon now stands poised to become the third great restaurant in downtown Palo Alto.

The Executive Chef of Junnoon is Kirti Pant, who worked previously at Cinnamon Club in London and Tamarind in New York.   Pant is obviously very talented and has put together a first-rate menu, and he's also had the benefit of getting input from Consulting Chef Floyd Cardoz -- Executive Chef at the groundbreaking New York restaurant Tabla, and one of the true masters of Indian fusion cuisine.   Sous Chef Shachi Mehra, drawing upon experience at Tabla and at Washington D.C.'s Bombay Club, rounds out the team leading the kitchen.
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There's more...

Menu


Over the course of six meals at Junnoon over the past two months, I've had the pleasure of sampling a fairly significant portion of the menu.   While a few items
Junnoon: At A Glance
ChefKirti Pant
Address150 University Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Phone650.329.9644
ParkingStreet
Restaurant Website
may have missed the mark slightly, most selections are excellent and a few are spectacular.   Each meal begins with a complimentary plate of crisp roasted papadums served with an avocado-flavored raita, a perfect harbinger for the innovative combinations to come and one that immediately commanded my attention the first time it was served to me.   Now, I've been eating raitas my entire life, and the various dishes in which I've enjoyed avocado over the years are too numerous to count.   But it never would have occurred to me to combine the buttery smoothness of avocado with the tart yogurt of raita, nor could I have imagined how well the two would work together.   Kant's kitchen pulls this off nicely, adding just enough avocado to impart a whisper of its distinctive flavor.

The appetizer selection at Junnoon is quite diverse, with meat, poultry, seafood and vegetarian items all featured prominently.   The Coriander and Fennel Chicken Tikka (Taste: 7.5 / Presentation: 5.5) (Ratings Explained) offers incredibly juicy cubes of marinated chicken, served with a flavorful mint sauce on the side.   Although the chicken could probably stand a bit more marinade, the dish is still very satisfying.   The Minced Beef Patty (T:8.0 / P:7.5) is a spin of sorts on the classic samosa, only here the meat is seasoned more boldly and then encased in a flaky puff pastry.   For something different, try the Tangy Semolina Shells (T:7.0 / P:7.0) -- small puffed shells (like those used in the Indian snack food known as pani poori), filled with nicely-spiced garbanzo beans and topped with tasty mint and tamarind chutneys.   Another excellent vegetarian option is the Sprouted Mung Bean "Chaat" Salad (T:7.0 / P:7.0), which is authentically seasoned with a pleasantly spicy kick and seems to be the most distinctive of the salads on the menu.   The Velvet Lamb Kebab (T:5.5 / P:6.0) is really a patty that's composed of lamb, cashews, ginger and clove.   But the lamb and other ingredients here are processed almost to the point of puree, resulting in a finished product that borders on a pate.   Although the overall flavor of this dish is good, the kitchen should consider less processing of the lamb and a slightly lighter touch on the clove-heavy spicing.

My favorite appetizer of all, however, has to be the Bombay Crab and Cod Cake (T:8.0 / P:8.0).   A mixture of sweet crabmeat and flaky cod is seasoned with fennel and onion seeds, after which it is pan-fried in order to yield a crisp and beautifully browned exterior.   The single cake is then placed in the center of a square plate, atop a lattice pattern of the accompanying sauces and with a mung bean "relish" off to one side.   The flavors here are wonderful, and the kitchen executes the dish flawlessly.

Before delving into Junnoon's entrees, I feel compelled to jump ahead in the menu to discuss breads, raitas, and chutneys.   The reason for this is that although these items are intended to be enjoyed as accompaniments to the main dishes (a role they play quite well), they can also serve as excellent appetizers.   Junnoon's naans are, in a word, fantastic. The Butter Naan (T:8.5 / P:7.0) is warm, soft, and just slightly chewy, while the Rosemary Naan (T:8.5 / P:7.0) adds the untraditional herb to great effect.   The Goat Cheese Naan (T:7.5 / P:7.0), which is stuffed with both cheese and chilies, is very good when eaten on its own, but it struggles to harmonize with other dishes as readily as the other breads do.   The "Lachha" Paratha (T:8.5 / P:7.0) is billed as a "fluffy layered tandoori bread," but it is just barely distinguishable from the Butter Naan.   Finally, the Bakarkhani (T:6.5 / P:7.0) has a pleasant saffron and fennel flavor, but the texture is a bit too dry to make it effective for eating with other dishes.

Junnoon also offers an impressive array of raitas and chutneys, good for eating with bread or alongside the main courses.   The Spinach Raita (T:6.0 / P:6.0) consists of cool, tart yogurt blended with just the right amount of spinach, while the Date and Walnut Raita (T:7.0 / P:6.0) incorporates pureed Medjool dates and walnuts for a decidedly innovative and sweet result.   The Tamarind Chutney (T:7.0 / P:6.0) and Mint and Cilantro Chutney (T:6.5 / P:6.0) are both very good, while the Garlic Chili Chutney (T:5.5 / P:6.0) and the Green Papaya Chutney (T:4.5 / P:6.0) struck me as being a notch or two below the others.   A good way to try several raitas/chutneys at once is to order the sampler, which gives you any three selections for $9.

Junnoon shines the brightest when it comes to entrees, and there's no shortage of outstanding options.   The Tandoori Halibut (T:9.0 / P:8.0) consists of a delicate filet of the white fish set in a pool of scrumptious coconut ginger sauce, while the pan-seared Rice Flaked Sea Bass (T:9.5 / P:8.0) comes crusted in crunchy rice flakes and surrounded by an indescribably delicious sauce made from kokum -- a sweet and sour fruit indigenous to South Asia.   Another fantastic choice is the Old Delhi Style Chicken (T:9.0 / P:6.5), thin strips of white and dark meat in a delectable butter and tomato sauce.   Sliced Flatiron Steak (T:8.5 / P:6.5) offers tender morsels of high-quality beef cooked in the tandoor, the smokiness imparted by the clay oven offset nicely by a sweet pomegranate molasses sauce served on the side.   The Tandoori Lamb Chops (T:8.0 / P:8.0) are also wonderful, though I couldn't help but wish that the hint of mace and cardamom that just barely peaks through could be amplified a bit more.

Kant's proficiency with sauces is again on display in the Tamarind Glazed Muscovy Duck (T:7.0 / P:7.0), a peanut, sesame and tamarind concoction propelling the pan-seared breast meat to unexpected heights.   On one occasion, the duck meat was tender and well-cooked;   on another, however, it was slightly overcooked and a bit tough.   A good vegetarian entrée is the Fricasse of Shiitake & Oyster Mushrooms (T:7.0 / P:7.0), which consists of the two mushroom varieties sautéed with spinach and then placed over a bed of golden yellow sliced potatoes.   Although the mushroom mixture seemed to have little seasoning, the quality of the ingredients was enough to make this dish enjoyable.   The Malabar Chicken Stew (T:5.5 / P:4.0) is fine, but it curiously tastes more Thai than Indian and hence seems out of place on the menu.   Finally, while the Prawns in Coconut Mustard Sauce (T:5.0 / P:6.0) were okay, the sauce seemed significantly out of balance -- with the mustard overpowering and washing out all traces of the coconut milk.

The restaurant offers a number of side dishes, which can serve as lighter alternatives or supplements to the more substantial entrees. The Masala Smashed Potatoes (T:6.0 / P:5.0) are nicely infused with a robust combination of Indian spices, while the Beans Poriyal (T:5.0 / P:6.0) contain too much coconut, almost to the point of distraction. The best side dish by far has to be the Black Lentils (T:8.5 / P:5.5), which are slowly stewed in a mixture of tomatoes, garlic and ginger. The resulting flavor is complex and almost smoky, with a rich depth unlike any that I have ever tasted in lentils served at other Indian restaurants.

Junnoon's one weak spot, without a doubt, is in the dessert department.   The Mango Mousse (T:4.5 / P:7.0) certainly looks quite impressive, but it offers relatively little flavor -- mango or otherwise -- and hence falls rather flat.   The Saffron Kulfi (T:6.0 / P:7.5) is a decent rendition of the Indian ice cream, although the flavor is a bit muted due to sugar content that's just slightly below where it ought to be.   The Molten Chocolate Cake (T:8.5 / P:8.0), on the other hand, is outstanding.   Rather than merely replicating this now ubiquitous dessert, the kitchen infuses the cake with the pronounced flavor of cardamom, throwing in a hint of ginger and clove for good measure as well.   A scoop of ginger gelato rounds out the very enjoyable dish.   Finally, the Champagne Poached Fresh Peaches (T:2.5 / P:4.0) were a real disappointment;   the peaches were mealy with little sweetness, the poaching liquid seemingly contributed nothing in the way of flavor, and there was far too much cardamom in the accompanying whipped yogurt.

Service and Decor


Service at Junnoon is generally adequate, though uneven.   The members of the host staff are, without exception, gracious, welcoming, and responsive.   Every one of my return visits was met with an acknowledgement that I had dined at the restaurant before, and even minor problems were immediately and effectively addressed.   The wait staff, on the other hand, present more of a mixed bag;   a few servers are polished, professional, and knowledgeable, while many others seem to be in desperate need of additional training.   For example, one server -- when asked questions to which she did not really know the answer -- would simply venture a guess and announce it as such, rather than politely excusing herself for a moment to track down the correct information.   A different server once stood by silently as a busboy tried to remove a just-delivered plate of naan from the table -- even though our main courses had yet to arrive.   And on a recent visit, a busboy carelessly placed the large bag in which our leftovers had been packed right in the middle of our table -- completely blocking our views of one another and bringing an immediate and mid-sentence halt to our conversation.   Yet, on another visit, the service was perfectly fine -- attentive and responsive.   Overall, however, Junnoon will really need to raise its dining room service to a higher level in order to bring it into line with the quality of the food.

The décor and atmosphere at Junnoon are modern, chic, warm and inviting.   The designers have done a masterful job of giving the space a feel that merely hints at India, in much the same way that the menu merely hints at its cuisine.   The color palette is grounded in deep colors, and the bar is nicely configured to create a comfortable lounge area just inside the front door.   The tables in the dining room are covered with white tablecloths, and they are generally spaced a reasonable distant apart.   All in all, Junnoon has all the makings of a place "to see and be seen" -- well, at least to the extent that such a place is possible in the suburbs.

Conclusion


Indian restaurants in this country have long sounded only one note, offering food that -- while sometimes authentic and frequently tasty -- does absolutely nothing to push the envelope.   I've waited a long time for somebody to come along and elevate Indian cuisine to new levels of sophistication and refinement, specifically by combining the ancient, rich and wonderful culinary ideas of India with Western techniques and modern sensibilities to create an upscale dining experience.   New York's Tabla did precisely that when it opened to rave reviews back in 1998.   Now, at long last, Junnoon stands ready to do the same for the Bay Area.



Junnoon
Food Taste7.57.5

Overall
Food Presentation7.5
Service5.5
Atmosphere8.0
Price$$$
Number of Visits: 6
Ratings Explained



7 Comments:

Anonymous Brett said...

Excellent post, NS! I'll have to check out Junnoon when my wife gets back into town. We've thoroughly enjoyed our meals at both Tamarind and Tabla (and the Tabla Bread Bar) in NYC, so I'm excited to read that there is now something at that level in the Bay Area. Cardoz's crabcakes at Tabla are also one of the better appetizers, so I'm not surprised that Junnoon's are good.

July 14, 2006 12:52 PM  
Anonymous Olivia said...

You've nearly obliterated the need for me to review the restaurant, as your initial visits very closely match with my experiences there so far. :)

Did you ever make it to Tallula in SF? I didn't think it was nearly as good as Tabla, but the closest I had found on the West Coast before Junoon. I haven't been to Tabla in awhile now, but from memory it would still be my top pick in the category.

I am a bit surprised though by the constituents of your Palo Alto dining list. I definitely agree with Evvia, but Tamarine has been hit or miss for me. Bistro Elan remains one of my favorites and is well-deserving of a place in that company, though I have heard about the occasional less than stellar first experiences there. We at least have the benefit of being regulars now and are always treated very well. Of course there is Village Pub too, though not in Palo Alto.

July 14, 2006 1:29 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Brett: I'll be anxious to hear your assessment of Junnoon, including how you think it compares with Tabla and Tamarind. I'm just happy to have a different and modern take on Indian cuisine here in the Bay Area, after far too many years of waiting!

Olivia: I did get to Tallula a few times before it closed, and I was never really all that impressed. Some of the food selections were fine, but none of them seemed to show particular creativity, flair, or ingenuity in fusing Indian concepts with Western culinary philosophies. Thus, while I agree that Tallula was the closest the Bay Area had previously come to a decent menu of Indian fusion food, I was never convinced that it had reached high enough.

As for Tamarine, I was less than thrilled with my first few visits to the restaurant shortly after it first opened, but I've had three very good meals there over the past two months. And while it clearly does not rise to the level of The Slanted Door in terms of food, it remains -- in my view -- a step above most other restaurants in Palo Alto. Thanks for the recommendations regarding Bistro Elan and Village Pub; I will definitely be exploring both of those establishments further!

July 14, 2006 4:15 PM  
Blogger Amy Sherman said...

Great review! I am so jealous you beat me to it, and that you've already eaten there 6 times! I had some food from Junnoon at the East West Eats event at the Ferry Building and met one of the owners who was very charming. We had a great chat about the Bread Bar at Tabla (a favorite of mine) and she gave me some suggestions for restaurants in London.

July 15, 2006 11:43 AM  
Anonymous Tana said...

I would like you to visit Devi in New York City, SFG, and compare the two restaurants. Hemant Mathur's cooking remains the high-water mark for my Indian food experiences.

I can't wait to try Junnoon, though--thanks for this great piece.

July 15, 2006 3:16 PM  
Anonymous tejal said...

I'm normally so suspicious of these Indian fusiony places, which are quite trendy in London--but I'm dying to try Zaika when I get back, which may not be fusiony but which I assume is quite Westernised as it has a star.

July 24, 2006 5:46 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Amy: I remember hearing that Kirti Pant was going to be at the East West Eats event, but I was regrettably unable to attend. I'll be very interested to hear your thoughts about Junnoon after you've had a chance to visit, particularly given your fondness for Bread Bar at Tabla!

Tana: I think that you once posted a comment on somebody else's blog about how much you enjoyed Devi, and since then it has been on my list of places to visit on my next trip to NY. I look forward to your assessment of how Junnoon measures up!

Tejal: London and NY are light years ahead of the Bay Area in terms of Indian fusion, so I'm just glad that we finally have one decent place here in town. I wish you safe travels on your journey back to London, and I look forward to reading your thoughts about Zaika!

July 28, 2006 2:23 PM  

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