Star of India was part of Pittsburgh's original constellation of Indian restaurants. Its rote Northern Indian cuisine was remarkable, then, for being available at all in a city whose ethnic restaurant choices were largely limited to Italian or Chinese.
Happily, the city's dining scene has blossomed since then, with Indian restaurants forming an exciting category unto themselves. As local palates have become accustomed to subcontinental spices, we've become more adventurous consumers of India's vast culinary repertoire, and restaurateurs have added regional specialties to the expected lists of curries and tandoor meats. At the same time, many ethnic restaurants found they no longer needed or wanted to rely on souvenir-stand tchotchkes to summon a native ambience, and joined their European neighbors at the table of contemporary chic.
And so, in the course of events, Star of India has seen fit to reinvent itself. Its owners have opened what amounts to a new restaurant, signified by a new name, Yuva India; it has a new menu, new white dishes and a new interior that is one of the most alluring in Oakland. Painted in warm hues of chili and turmeric, its walls are punctuated not with cheap bazaar finds, but with oversized photographs of Indian spices and street scenes that evoke the flavors and colors of the country in a way that enhances the clean, modern feel of the space. And if that space is a bit noisy, we found that a fair exchange for leaving behind the old carpeting and acoustic tile ceilings.
The menu's overhaul is less complete, and retains an emphasis on Northern Indian, rice-based dishes. But we were pleased to see some distinctive items identified by their states of origin — including Punjab, Kerala, Rajstan and Goa — as well as chat among the usual fried suspects on the appetizer list. Chats are street snacks that might best be described as Indian nachos, usually featuring several toppings layered over a substrate of crisp-fried, bite-size bits.
As with nachos, there's no definitive recipe, and variations abound. Yuva's Delhi ki papri chats were crispy puffs of fried bread, simply doused with fruity chutney and tangy yogurt. With none of the chick peas, vegetables or savory sauces we've had in other chats, the effect was sweet, simple and more like a breakfast food than a dinner appetizer; it put Angelique in mind of a cross between breakfast cereal and a yogurt parfait.
Yuva's Tasting Platter, an assortment of appetizers, was a mixed success. Pappadam (large, round lentil crackers) were crispy, peppery and served rolled, not flat. This had the slight disadvantage of making it harder to spread them with the tamarind and cilantro chutneys that were also provided. Pakora (vegetable fritters fried in gram flour) were a dense, dull mix of cauliflower and sweet potato. Samosas, however, were unusually good. In our experience, most of these potato pastries are pretty bland, with the best redeemed only by a well-fried crust. But Yuva seasoned the filling to provide bright, herbal flavor in every bite.
Tandoori platters are often a mixed grill in results as well as ingredients, but Yuva pulled off a very impressive trick: The fish and shrimp, which are nearly always abused by the searing heat of the tandoor, were moist and, in the case of the fish especially, succulent. Halibut, cut into two large chunks, formed a bit of crust but retained all its moisture and bright, fresh flavor within. Lamb sausage was fine and especially tender. But a chicken drumstick and thigh held an unpleasant surprise: They were utterly dried out and tough. Since it takes quite a lot of exposure to overcook dark meat, after the careful handling of the seafood, we found this all the more shocking.
Yuva's skillful cooking of seafood in the tandoor also made Jason optimistic about his spice-crusted fish of the day; he was further excited about the menu's promise that it would come skewered on a sword after being roasted over charcoal. In the event, however, he was served a halibut steak. Halibut being the fish of the day, perhaps his order was misconstrued and he really received the tandoor-cooked Kerala Coast halibut. Perhaps it was the absence of a protective skin that resulted in this fish following in the dry footsteps of the tandoori chicken. Whatever the case, this fish lacked moisture and had an overly fishy flavor. Sadly, we found it hardly worth eating.
Punjabi fritter curry was something on Yuva's new menu that was new to us, too, so Angelique bypassed all of her most beloved vindaloos, masalas and kormas to try it. Unfortunately, these fritters were as mediocre as the ones on the appetizer platter. Being soaked in a yellowish sauce that tasted like nothing so much as supermarket curry powder mixed into yogurt did not improve their flavor or texture. The sauce was harsh yet dull, and almost gritty in texture.
There were two thoroughly satisfying dishes on our table. The first was paneer makhni, cubes of homemade Indian cheese in a smooth, simple sauce of blended tomatoes and butter. We'd ordered it extra-mild for our spice-averse child, and it was mild, yet full of flavor. With plenty of fresh paneer, it was a simple, classic and flawless dish. To sop up this delicious sauce, we also had a possibly the best garlic naan we've ever tried; it was light and crisp, zingy but not overpowering.
The new Yuva India is so aesthetically pleasing, and so conveniently located, that we wanted to make it our new favorite Indian restaurant. But an uneven dining experience means Yuva is not there yet.