Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Darbar Pakistani & Indian Cuisine

1412 Polk Street, Between California and Pine, 415 359 1236

photograph picture of Darbar Pakistani & Indian Cuisine, Polk, San Francisco

My latest post for SFist in which I am eating my way around the Bay area in alphabetical order has been published. This piece is written in typical SFist, rather than the usual Becks & Posh, style.

No self-respecting Londoner would ever move to San Francisco in search of curry. Yes, London. The home of no less than two Michelin-starred Indian Chefs and more curry houses than you can shake a sheek kebab at. (And that's just on Brick Lane.) What are the poor old expats to do when searching for a fix of post-lager Chicken Tikka Masala at 11pm on a Friday night? The answer is probably, not much, save fly straight back to Blighty. If forking out several hundred dollars for a plane ticket inflates the value of a plate of biryani a few dollars over the level of excessive, then tell your English mates they could do worse than try Darbar instead.

Darbar will do nothing to vanquish delirious longings from a British insomniac kept awake by nightmarish thoughts about a world without Plain Popadoms, with no Chicken Rezala and devoid of Prawn Puris. Darbar is not decorated with flocked wallpaper, nor is the floor padded with a swirly-patterned burgundy carpet. At Darbar you don't get to rest your lardy arse on a soft, but well farted-upon claret-coloured velvet chair. No food warmer powered by little tea lights is set on your table to keep your food warm, but, so what, we're not in England now, we have no choice but to do curry the San Francisco way.
Darbar is a cute little place on Upper Polk where you might normally expect to order your cheap Indian food at the counter in an ugly neon-lit room, as you hide your bring-your-own beer in a brown paper bag on a Formica table. Darbar stands out from these neighbours by offering a prettier setting, painted walls framed with pictures, tables that are clean and set for dinner, waiter service, and a proprietor who loves nothing more than to socialize with his customers whilst bringing them a glass for that beer or wine.
What price do we pay for this luxury? Well, not much more than the foodies perennial bargain basement favourite, Shalimar.
For $2 our Seekh kebab was superb. A skillet-sizzling, juicy, fat, meaty, spiced pink sausage on a bed of hissing onions landed on our table with aplomb. Beyond any doubt, this was the best version we've ever tasted and a bargain to boot. Shalimar charges exactly the same for its inferior version which has none of the grace or the quality of Darbar's super-fresh, straight-from the oven offering.
Two vegetarian samosas stuffed with potatoes and peas for $1.99 were less of a wow. The dough was uncooked beneath the surface and the vegetable stuffing was unexceptional. To be truthful, we prefer the samosas at Wholefoods in SoMa.
At $5.99 Darbar's aubergine dish, the Bagnan Bharta composed of roasted eggplant with potato, peas and darbari spices is a good dollar more than Shalimar's sloppy, featureless equivalent, Bengen Bhujia. One extra dollar is a small price to pay for a serving of delicious vegetable curry where each of the ingredients has it's own form and identity but partners with its neighbours to result in a fresh, tasty, not too oily, well-spiced dish. Darbar's curries are topped with fresh cut herbs too, an unusual touch at this price point.
Darbar's Sarson Ka Saag, $5.99 is another vegetarian dish, this one made with mustard spinach and darbari herbs. The green leaves are cooked to a soft mush, and although tasty, the texture might be too much like puree for some. For this reason, we don't recommend Darbar's spinach as a main, although it would be a great little side to share among four or so people.
It's common enough knowledge that Chicken Tikka Masala is a British invention. Until today, though, we weren't aware of the myth which suggests an obstinate diner somewhere in Scotland over 30 years ago, demanded gravy on tandoori chicken. Rumours abound that the chef responded by adding a tin of Campbell's tomato soup and pinch of spices to the meat and so Britain's most popular dish was born. Darbar's own version, at $5.99, does nothing to dispel that particular legend. The pieces of meat are drowning in a sea of a bright orange-red, creamy, buttery soup-like sauce, that reminded us of Heinz Tomato, but considering our geography was more likely to have been Campbells, if indeed it was made from soup. Our dining companion, not one to shy away from rich food, unsurprisingly polished this off, smacking his lips and barely allowing us even a mouthful.
As we prefer to receive a giant plain naan that we can tear and share, we were disappointed that the bread, $0.99, was already cut into four before serving. It was a pretty standard naan, a little too much on the soft side. It needed more blistering on the fatter areas of the dough.
Darbar's boss, kindly offered us complimentary tea after our meal. (All of his dinner guests received the same treatment.) We accepted but didn't expect it to take so long to arrive. When it finally materialized it was so scorching hot, the spiciness of our food became a distant memory, this was the part of the evening when we actually got to burn our tongues. [Warning - this tea contains milk.]
Much of Darbar's menu is actually Pakistani, not Indian. The owner told us that we could tell which was which by the amount of cream and butter in a dish. Generally those without dairy are the Pakistani dishes. He also told us that Darbar endeavours to use less dairy and less oil to create a healthier menu, although this fact isn't advertised anywhere. He's obviously doing something right, the food certainly did seem fresher and less greasy than it is at other similarly-priced joints in the neighbourhood. You might also be interested to know that they only use halal meat.
The adventurous amongst you might like to try out some of the more challenging dishes on offer such as Lamb Brain Masala or Goat Meat cooked with Pickle, all of them under $6.
Our bill for the two appetizers, rice, naan and three curries came to $27 before tip. Although it has the definite edge on comfort and quality, Darbar is in the same league as the other super-cheap local joints, price wise, making it our new favourite spot to eat curry in the 'loin.

Mon-Sun: 11.00am to 10:00pm

Indian Curry and Spice Week logo

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Darbar Pakistani & Indian Cuisine


  • At 20/4/05 11:03, Blogger Amy Sherman said…

    Lee and I LOVE Darbar! Believe it or not they actually make delicious Indian style burritos, called wraps, wrapped up in naan. The veggie one is surprisingly good, filling and cheap.

  • At 20/4/05 11:23, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Tenderloin? That's a bit of a stretch. Darbar is on a non-scary area of Polk near Swan, Victor's, etc.

    I've found Darbar to be quite greasy, but that's mainly in comparison with south bay offerings as opposed to the grease joints like Nan 'n Curry in the city.

    One nice note- Darbar delivers.

  • At 20/4/05 12:17, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Can you see me drooling all over my keyboard? How did I not know you were doing an entire week on Indian food?? Can every week be curry&spice??? On second thought, maybe you'd better not - I've already had Indian two times this week and now I'm sitting on my hands so they don't pick up the phone and dial the takeaway number... Bad idea to look here right before dinner! ;)

  • At 21/4/05 02:42, Blogger Z said…

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  • At 24/4/05 11:07, Blogger Sam said…

    Hi AMy - we should meet there for sdinner some time!
    journeygirl (Shh, I try not to think about my lardy arse whenever I can forget about it)
    Aninymous - I know it is officially 1 block from the N of the tenderloin, but i don't know quite what to call that area, it doesn't seem quite russian or nob hill. How about "The TenderNob"??! Have you got any better ideas.

  • At 26/4/05 14:49, Blogger Civic Center said…

    Anything north of California Street on Polk Street you can just call Upper Polk.

  • At 26/4/05 20:58, Blogger Sam said…

    thanks for the tip mike. I'll edit the post accordingly.

  • At 24/9/09 16:04, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi! Darbar, Shalimar etc are all Pakistani cuisine. Not Indian. Pakistani food is distinctly more aromatic, flavorish & yummy.
    Sorry, it is not the same thing! Stop calling it Indian.
    It is similar nit same & you bet , better.


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