On Monday my friend Peter and I had dinner at Indian Oven in the Lower Haight after sake tasting with chowhounds. Id not been there for about 4 years. It wasnt that impressive the last time, but I wanted to try it again since it seems to be the most popular Indian restaurant in the City.
We asked for our dishes to be spiced medium, not knowing the heat calibration here. The food was better than before, at least the naan wasnt soggy and doughy. But the dishes were so mildly flavored, if theyd been served to me blind-folded, Im not sure Id have identified them as Indian. I had to chuckle that wed skipped ordering the lamb vindaloo because it might be more fiery than I wanted for this meal.
We started with eggplant pakora, which were cut rounds of slim and sweet Japanese eggplant fried in chickpea batter. Not too greasy, the eggplant was creamy inside with nice contrast to the crunchy batter. The caddy of chutneys were standard fare and none too exciting or intense (except for the mango pickle). The mixed tandoori grill had a nice touch of shredded red bell peppers and onions as a bed, and the meats were succulent and of good quality, but lacked spicing. The scallop korma was sweeter than I like, yet again the shellfish was of very good quality, moist and tender. The dish was muted in flavor, tasting mostly of cream, black pepper and almonds with not enough acid or the fine bitter quality of tumeric to define it. The pullao had good texture and some cumin seeds for fragrance. The raita was thin and watery. Lastly, the naan was fine, although served dry when I would have preferred a brush of ghee.
Ingredients were very fresh and none were overdone and dried out, but the kitchen had an unbelievably timid hand with the spice jar. Not only were the dishes not spicy hot (not even mildly let alone medium-hot), they lacked much in the way of complex seasoning at all to transform them into something besides the primary ingredient. As we were puzzling over this, we spotted a friend there and asked him about his meal. He said that this was the first time hed been there without his Indian friends, and he was surprised at how different and bland the food was. We theorized that wed been served the gringo versions of everything. We all liked the service and ambience, but found the food a conundrum. It seemed like its target market is people who dont really like the intensity or complexity of Indian food and prefer it camouflaged.
So, now Im curious about others experiences with Indian Oven. Is the food usually this bland? What is the appeal here?