Indian Clay Oven
2436 Clement Street
(between 25th Ave & 26th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94121
Just a few meals past my Thanksgiving dinner, I am already lusting for my next fantastic meal. In this economy, finding a great budget buffet is similar to hitting the food jackpot.
A mélange of aromas from various spices permeates through entire space at Clay Oven. The sixty five seat neighborhood restaurant provides patrons with a tasting menu with their all you can eat lunch buffet (8.95). Tables dressed in white linen and glass cups set the tone for a charming meal. The high ceiling and wide street side window creates a cozy dining area.
Noticeably, the wait staff is very attentive, constantly refilling beverages and collecting plates. Once seated, a basket filled with blistered crispy naan starts the meal. As the name suggests, the menu revolves around char-roasted meat and rich curries.
Starting my spice excursion, I start with a generous mound of rice pilaf. Sweetened with sweat green peas, the fluffy basmati rice is flavored with saffron. Known as one of the most expensive spices, saffron comes from dried stigma of a flower –often used in both coloring and flavoring in Southwest cooking.
With a thick consistency and vibrant green color, the saag paneer which is mild in spice goes very well with the naan. Eaten both in India and Pakistan, the curry is based on spinach and mustard leaves. Fried into meteorite -like shapes, the vegetable pakora lacked crispiness and flavor.
Similar to the Japanese tempura, the vegetable is battered and fried. Resembling fish ‘n chips, the meat from the fish pakora was flaky. The sweet chutney adds sweet flavor to the otherwise bland fried creations.
The tandoori chicken steals the show. Known as a semi-fried chicken delicacy that originated in the Punjab region, the meat is marinated in yogurt and seasoned with tandoori masala. While the tandoori masala varies from region to region, the base spice mix includes garlic, ginger, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Cooked at high temperatures in the clay oven called tandoor, the chicken tastes smoky while the spice adds a sweet aromatic flavor.
The curries are exceptional and pair well with the rice. The chicken curry is a rich intense curry. Boneless chicken bathes in a red sauce piping with oil and flavored with paprika and chilies. Tender lamb pieces make up the lamb curry. For dessert, the kheer (rice pudding) helps cool off the spice while the gulab jumun (brown cottage fried ball) soaks in flavored syrup is offered.
Indian cuisine is often associated with a sophisticated blend of spices.
India’s religious belief and culture plays a very influential role in their culinary arts. For instance, many worshippers of Hindu and Buddhism are vegetarians. Clay Oven serves North Indian cuisine and it is differentiate by a high consumption of dishes with dairy products such as milk and yogurt. Other common ingredients include nuts, saffron, and chilies.
Many Indian dishes are cooked in ghee, also known as clarified butter. A spoonful of ghee adds a rich consistency along with a nutty taste. While cooking Indian food, a well known technique is baghaar with infuses flavor by dropping spices into hot oil. Cinnamon, mustard seeds, red chilies, and bay leaves are popular ingredients used in this cooking technique.
Many recipes also require spices to be grinded. A great example is to taste the difference between ground pepper that has been sitting around compared to the fresh nutty smell of freshly ground pepper. Instead of adding cream to create a thick sauce, Indian food use yogurt that adds a creamy texture and a dash of tartness.