A&E

Regional Indian cuisine still shines

As Amber India expands its empire, it stays true to its Mountain View roots

Good news: Amber India is moving to modern quarters in Los Altos, just across the Mountain View border, with plenty of parking. Even better news: The old location still provides the excellent food and service that introduced the South Bay to white-tablecloth, multi-regional Indian cuisine in 1994.

The original Amber India will remain open for catering, said owner Vijay Bist. It is a place of memories for Silicon Valley. As Bist puts it, "People are very loyal in Mountain View. They say, 'How can you move? We grew up there!'''

The restaurant's enduring popularity also comes from its being family-friendly.

"We're bringing the whole team from Mountain View, a new chef from India," Bist said. "Hopefully we can serve the next generation of young kids."

The Amber empire started expanding in 2003, with a chic restaurant/lounge in San Jose's luxe Santana Row. Then there were restaurants in San Francisco, Palo Alto and a cafe in Mountain View.

By the end of the year, Bist hopes, there will be one in Los Altos. The new Amber India is going into a 10,000-square-foot building just across the street, on the Los Altos side of El Camino Real. There will be three levels, each with its own personality, kitchen and bar. The new restaurant will have a well-stocked cocktail lounge with big-screen TV, a private room, and a patio with fire and water features for Indian weddings.

In true startup fashion, Bist's first food business did not go so well. His organic food store in San Jose predated the market, and had a bad location, he says. And one of his restaurants in San Francisco is closed for now, while he focuses on Los Altos.

Meanwhile, Mountain View is doing just fine. Even with the Olive Tree Shopping Center half empty, parking is very competitive at lunchtime. This may be because the $14.95 buffet is constantly refreshed. Naan doesn't sit in a steam tray, but is served fresh to your table. Remarkably, tandoori chicken (skinless but with bones) stays tender. Dishes rotate and are cooked from scratch every day. It's a good time to try something new, like for me, a luscious Bhodpuri potato dish. Amber India represents a variety of regions well.

For pacing purposes, it's important to know that the signature butter chicken and a couple of other savory meat dishes are accessed at the dessert table.

At dinner, the assorted tandoori hors d'oeuvres ($13.95) could make an entree for the indecisive meat-eater. You get luscious lamb sausage (seekh kabab), minced with onions, ginger, garlic and spices. Cubes of lamb (barrah kabob) are tender and aromatic. Boneless pieces of marinated chicken maintain a moist texture and flavor-enhancing char spots. All of the above are served on a platter, with the bed of onions still sizzling and the slice of lemon nicely warmed for juicing. Tamarind and mint-cilantro sauces come in easy-to-pour creamers.

Servers spoon out the entrees. As opposed to the lunchtime buffet, rice and naan are extras. We needed both butter naan ($2.95) and basmati rice ($2.95) to soak up the silken butter chicken and sauce, which also features tomatoes and fenugreek.

Visually and flavor-wise, palak paneer ($14.95) makes an excellent companion to butter chicken ($17.95). Creamy spinach is dotted with cubes of farmer's cheese.

For a sweet ending, try Bengali rasgulla ($4.50), two little balls of dense farmer's cheese dumplings in relatively light rose-flavored sugar syrup.

My only issue with Amber India is the anemic wine list. The new location is sure to cure that problem.

Amber India

2290 W. El Camino Real, No. 9, Mountain View.

650-968-7511

amber-india.com

Hours: Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner daily 5-10 p.m.

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