Heguiberto and I’ve been talking about dining at Ajanta for ages! It had almost become one of those things that people refer to frequently yet always remain just over the horizon—you know what I mean: “I’ll start that diet next week” or “We really should go back to Rome someday soon.” So I was amazed if a bit shocked when he suddenly announced that we were to meet some of our fellow bloggers at this Indian restaurant apparently named “one of Alice Waters’ favorite places.”
Ajanta is a bit obscure from our insular vantage point in San Francisco. Berkeley is literally just across the Bay, yet somehow it can seem a million miles away. (Is L.A. closer, do you think?) I’m joking a bit here and want to rein it in before I cause more offense. Actually, we heard about Ajanta on another Berkeley excursion, to Viks Chaat Corner. That’s where Hegui found the incredible Ajanta cookbook. He’s made many wonderful recipes out of it, like flavorful Kashmiri eggplant, and ajwain samosas. You can probably already see where this is going. We had high expectations for Ajanta. Perhaps they were a bit too high.
That night our group was eight. That included the two of us, Fer and her husband, Maryanne and her husband (they’re spending a month in Singapore right now!) and Priscilla and a colleague of hers from her culinary school (They’re both about to graduate. Priscilla and her husband have already located a marvelous spot for her to open her own bakery back in Brazil. That’s a place that Hegui and I’d like to visit soon.) The company was a real pleasure. Everyone had interesting things to share and seemed genuinely excited to be together once again after our visit to Clos du Val.
But back to Ajanta. It’s in the Berkeley Hills a bit, so the area is lovely. We had an 8PM reservation on a Friday night. I was worried about traffic across the Bay Bridge but really it wasn’t too bad. The fog was just starting to blow across the water. Berkeley was colder than Potrero Hill, which we hadn’t expected. San Francisco has a reputation for the coldest weather in the area but perhaps it is unearned. We were ill prepared as we hadn’t even thought to bring jackets. Fortunately parking was easy. I got a spot right in front of the place.
The décor here is gorgeous, sort of “modern Indian.” There’s this massive wooden door out front. Inside the dining room looked sleek. There was a large painting of some sort of fantasy elephant scene that caught my eye. It ran across most of one long wall. The lamps hanging from the ceiling seemed like an inspired sculpture of lighting.
The place was packed. Perhaps that explains the generally lackluster service. It took forever for our beers to arrive. The group ended up ordering a variety of small plates, which we generally shared. The monthly special, Tandoori asparagus was a hit. We also tried the Tandoori scallops and Tandoori Portobello mushrooms. These were okay. Hegui ordered the vegetarian samosas, like the recipe he made from the Ajanta cookbook, but didn’t really enjoy them too well—something about the oil bothered him. The vegetarian pakoras were more successful.
One thing that’s interesting about Ajanta is that they have “monthly specials.” I don’t think that I’ve seen that at any other Indian restaurant. The veggie special was “baby squash medley,” essentially zucchini, summer squash and yellow squash with peas and paneer cheese in a mildly spicy tomato, garlic onion curry. I liked it. Hegui tried the Badal Jaam, which is the Kashmiri eggplant dish. Neither of us thought it was as good as the version he made at home. Perhaps it was the excess of pomegranate molasses?
So we had fun. The company was excellent. And Ajanta is good, but it didn’t blow our socks off. Undoubtedly had we never had food we prepared ourselves from their fabulous cookbook, we’d be singing their praises more—hello Alice Waters!