A little India, of sorts, is growing around the intersection of Centre Avenue and Craig Street, in Oakland. There's an Indian grocery (two, if you count the one a couple blocks away on Craig nearer Forbes) and now, with the opening of All India, two Indian restaurants.
None of the record stores and anonymous pizzerias that have occupied All India's storefront over the years has ever beckoned us inside, so we had no idea how large the space is. It's huge, and far too deep to be brightly lit by the storefront windows. The restaurant's owners have made the most of this challenging condition by embracing it. Dark-stained plywood arabesque cutouts create a pleasing rhythm on the spice-colored walls, colorful garlands of silk flowers festoon doorways, and handsome pendant lamps cast a soft glow over even the tables farthest from the front. The elegant touches extend to the table settings, where brass water goblets and good, heavy flatware suggest a commitment to quality, down to the last detail.
But best of all is All India's menu, which attempts to live up to its name. With more than 200 items, All India's menu is both epic and exciting, including novel choices such as Goan coconut shrimp and green jackfruit curry alongside the old denizens, chicken curry and the tandoor.
We started with an array of savory appetizers. Our longtime favorite, the enigmatically named "chicken 65," was gloriously tender chunks of moist dark meat. What it lacked in fluorescent red color, it more than made up for in subtly spicy fried coating. Punjabi-style crispy tilapia was also fried in bite-size nuggets, but possessed a crisper exterior and even deeper spice notes. Hut-K kabab, a new-to-us dish of ground paneer and vegetables, had the texture of a finely ground veggie burger in the form of a sausage link; the flavor was of melded herbs and spices, with no single ingredient predominating.
Our appetites whetted, we confronted the rest of the menu, which ran the gamut from soups and flatbreads to "Indo-Chinese Delicacies." Our choices were made all the harder by the fact that the menu descriptions are brief to the point of obfuscation. It was difficult to know if and how, for instance, a dish "cooked in delicate spices" was different from one "gently cooked with rare spices and herbs." Overwhelmed, we ended up defaulting to a couple of old favorites, such as Angelique's favorite, channa masala, and some multi-dish platters that allowed us to sample small portions of several items.
One of these was the tandoor mixed grill, and it was terrific, even the seafood. We've often wondered why Indian restaurants subject seafood to the tandoor, whose blasting heat dries the meat and converts the oils into fishy-smelling compounds, but All India shows that the tandoor needn't ruin fish. The salmon, marinated in yogurt, turmeric and fenugreek leaves, was done a bit much for our tastes, but retained good flavor, while the juicy, smoky, herb-infused shrimp was simply extraordinary. The meats were pretty good as well — highlights being lamb sheekh (ground and spiced, like a sausage) that was exceptionally juicy, and chicken tikka that remained moist despite being white meat. A generous mound of sautéed peppers and onions helped to round out the platter.
A thali, or combination platter, is a great option for both the unadventurous (a couple combos consist almost completely of Indian-American greatest hits like samosa and naan) and for the explorer (others consist largely of items we've never heard of, listed with no explanation). Thali is also perfect for a solo diner who wants the experience of multiple tastes without lugging home a stack of takeout containers. Our Gujarati thali presented an intriguing array of vegetarian items: a simple, tasty golden daal; undhio, a thick curry of potatoes, mashed beans and lentils; mirchi pakora, a green chile stuffed, tamale-like, with a spiced paste; and kadi pakoda, chickpea-flour fritters in a thick, rich, tangy yellow sauce.
From the southern Indian list, we tried egg dosa, the classic lentil-rice crepe fried with a thin layer of scrambled egg; the effect was, paradoxically, that of a crisp omelet. From the north, paneer makhni was smooth and creamy as bisque, while channa masala (chick-pea curry) was satisfying, if not revelatory.
At All India, old-favorite dishes are prepared with care, and there are plenty — we do mean plenty — of new ones to try.