Menu pictures worth a thousand words

By Allison Costa 05/27/2010

Cafe India
1775 E.Daily Drive
Camarillo
987-8537
www.thecafeindia.com
$3.95 - $24.95


When you find a restaurant on the Internet, you never really know what you're in for. Such was the case with Cafe India. I think I was searching for information on a certain Italian restaurant, one thing led to another, and the hand of Google guided me to some info on Cafe India. Eventually, I found their Web site ... and you know what got me? The online menu, full of pictures of every item on the menu. Yet as I headed to Camarillo, I still had no idea what I was going to find. Would the restaurant be nice? Is this going to be a great find or a total bust?

Well, I'm here to tell you: Cafe India is a great find, and well worth the drive for those who live in other parts of the county. Like many great finds, this restaurant is nothing fancy on the outside — no shout-outs to the Taj Mahal or Indian goddesses in the windows. It’s just a plain old restaurant in a nice strip mall with a simple red sign. Oh, but the interior … tile floors as shiny as a freshly waxed car, arched doorways that separate the room into intimate spaces, and cozy round booths made for festive dinners. There are hints to India in some of the ornate artwork on the walls, but the overall look is clean and classy.

Upon being seated in our booth, we were pleased to see the extensive beer and wine list — all the way down to Guinness, if you're in the mood for a beer, and Herzog wines, if you're looking for something local. They pour hearty glasses of wine, and at $6 to $7 a glass, that price is hard to beat. Like the online menu, the ink-and-paper menus are full of colorful photos — perfect for the visual learner and eater. As we browsed and debated and metaphorically started to drool, we munched on a little plate of lentil papadum, stone-ground lentil crackers. Big as dinner plates, and flavored with pepper and cumin, we broke them into pieces and dipped them into sweet chutney. Light, crisp and salty — these are India's answer to chips and salsa.

The appetizer options include samosas (vegetarian turnovers), pakoras (fritters made with either vegetables or meats) and a chutney sampler with wheat-flour chips. We couldn't resist the onion bhaji, fried little onion pieces that had the crunch and feel of an American onion ring, but with the spiciness of cumin. They came with a thick, tomato-based chutney — as red as a summer-ripe tomato. It was thick and sweet, so we piled it onto the bhaji with a fork and delighted in the dance between the spicy and sweet, the crunchy batter and smooth sauce.

We also started with the masala dosa, an Indian crepe filled with spiced potatoes. Now, when you normally think of a crepe, you might think small and dainty. But not so with this crepe and its grandiose presence on the table. It was so long that each end extended six inches over the edge of the plate. The crepe, made with rice and lentil flour, was simple and plain, but the filling was loud and domineering with a salty spiciness. We dipped it into the accompanying stark white coconut chutney — and this thick, creamy sauce with a hint of lime cooled our mouths and pleased our taste buds beyond belief. The dosa also comes with a little cup of lentil soup — brothy and filled with lentils, carrots and a vibrant lemon flavor.

The entree options are bountiful — and selection made all the more difficult with the tantalizing photos calling out to us. Tandoori shrimp, lamb kebabs and chicken vindaloo were tempting, but we opted for the chicken saag and the lamb pasanda. We also asked for an order of basmati rice and an order of poori (puffy rounds of fried bread). Though poori is not on the menu, they made it for us anyway. Puffy and glistening with oil, it's almost like having a decadent dessert alongside your dinner.

The chicken saag consists of large chunks of tender chicken in a dark, earthy spinach sauce usually flavored with coriander, ginger, cardamom, tumeric and garam masala. This thick stew is warming and hearty and perfect served over the simple basmati rice. The lamb pasanda, a new dish to me, is a vibrant fire-engine red, thanks to tomatoes and saffron, with a thickness from the addition of finely chopped nuts. This sauce was sweet, thick and creamy; and the lamb was fork tender. We spooned the stews over rice, scooped them up with pieces of the poori, and ate until we could eat no more.

Whether you find it by way of the Internet or find it by car, whether you're drawn by the photos on the Web site or pulled in by the scent of Indian spices wafting out the door, you'll find that Cafe India is a nice little restaurant that offers hearty portions of exceptional food at reasonable prices. You'll find servers who are friendly, prompt and professional. And you'll probably find that you want to go back, again and again.   

www.venturafoodhappenings.com

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