The curry train pulled in Friday afternoon at Little Deli on Jones Street, where four of us enjoyed a leisurely lunch of northern Indian food.
This tidy 12-seat restaurant, open almost three years, is owned by a friendly couple from Lucknow named Kamal and Neemi. Their city is a traditional center of Muslim culture, and the menu features Mughul-influenced dishes cooked to order. Meat is halal.
Like Sultan a block east, Little Deli has set itself apart from its popular Punjabi neighbors. It does have a tandoor, but barbecued meats are not a centerpiece of the menu (too bad, in a way; Lucknow's kababs are said to be terrific). Tandoori meats are instead wrapped in naan for an appetizer or used in such curries as butter chicken and badami chicken ($8.99), chunks of white meat (slightly dry on our visit) in a delicious almond sauce with yogurt and a touch of cream.
Shrimp turns up in several dishes, including the Hungaama special ($11.99), a fresh-tasting curry in a lively yogurt-enriched gravy with cauliflower, tomato, onion and other vegetables (you can also have this with chicken or lamb). Neemi said "Hungaama" is Hindi for "screaming" or "be happy." Sounds about right to me.
A standout among the vegetable dishes was okra ($6.99) stir-fried with onion, potato and tomato, a handful of chopped cilantro tossed in at the end. The okra was blackened in places and the onion fried to a deep brown, adding smoke and sweetness. Seasoning was light, allowing fresh vegetable flavors to take the lead.
Also on the menu are vindaloos, saags, korma and rogan josh ($8.99), the Kashmiri lamb dish, in a flavorful gravy with browned onions. They'll make this with chicken or shrimp, too.
We also had the chollay aloo ($5.99), garbanzos and potatoes in a thick, sweet gravy, mellow but with a sneaky heat. On previous visits I've enjoyed the plain chollay curry, which I found tastier and more complex. Maybe the potato blunted the intensity of the flavors, as Melanie suggested. Or maybe, by the time this plate landed on our already groaning table, my appetite had hit the wall.
A fine accompaniment for all these dishes was naan ($1), puffy on top, firm and slightly charred on the bottom, generously brushed with ghee. The paratha ($2) was good, too: rich, flaky and hot off the stove. Basmati rice ($1) was delicately perfumed with clove and black cardamom.
As I say, this was a leisurely lunch, clocking in at around 2 1/2 hours. (I should note that I've gotten out of there in less than half that time when dining alone, on one dish plus naan.) We arrived when the owners did, and they took a while to get rolling. Once they did, dishes came to the table in an erratic procession over the next hour or more. Fortunately the company was congenial and engaging.
Patience was rewarded. Flavors were fresh, spicing well balanced. Chile heat was fairly high. They will crank it up higher upon request; when they do, the result is indeed hot, yet all the flavors come together nicely.
You'll notice that prices are a buck or two higher than elsewhere in the neighborhood. But portions are larger, too, and we packed up several boxes of leftovers before staggering back out onto Jones Street -- thinking ahead, perhaps, to southern Indian vegetarian dishes at Woodlands.
Little Deli Indian Cuisine
552 Jones St., San Francisco
Open Tuesday to Sunday, around 1 p.m. to around 11 p.m.