After the mixed reports from various sources, Daily Candy convinced us to try Junnoon in Palo Alto. I wish we hadn't.
But we left Junnoon culinarily disappointed.
First, and to its credit, the place is in a vaguely doomed corner, host to a few unexceptional restaurants. That's the good news, since we can all hope that it will be replaced before long by something worthwhile.
Second, I am beginning to notice a pattern in Palo Alto: places with an appealing list of foofy drinks -- and with bartenders who can make them competently -- are bad for food. (Bodeguita del Medio excepted.) Tai Pan, Three Seasons, and Mantra all have fun foofy drinks from the bar, but unexceptional food (disappointing, okay, and execrable, respectively). Sure thing, the tricked-out mojito, called Mystic Mohito, was quite good and exceptionally minty. We should have left immediately on downing it.
But we didn't.
Neutral to positive about Junnoon: it is the only place I can think of in Palo Alto that actually has a San Francisco feel to its interior design. It doesn't look like anywhere in particular, but the balance of gold-metallic curtains to rich-colored walls to dark flooring is unusual to San Francisco, and I don't think it occurs elsewhere locally.
The proprietors emphasize menu consultancy by Floyd Cardoz of New York's hyped Tabla. Somehow I am not sure that needing a high-profile consultant makes me want to eat at a place. Would you hire a sign-painter because she was 'inspired by the work of Giotto'? Do people love to see Lebron James play basketball because they have heard of his trainer?
Now for the chow. You can look at the menu on the pretentious, slow Web site (complete with sound loop and long Flash intro that you can't skip). You won't really want to, because it will put you off. The whole endeavor seems contrived to scare away chowhounds: the prices are high, the descriptions are chocked with lists of ingredients.
The Bombay crab and cod cake: an acceptable, non-greasy seafood cake. It was served alongside a sprout-and-bean compote that neither complemented nor detracted from the cake. The spicing was even and gentle. This particular dish was presented on a rather pretty quadrille pattern of two sauces on the plate. Like a lot of plate-born patterns, it would work a lot better in a photo shoot than in a meal.
Downhill from there: the mealy, dull velvet lamb kebob looked like a bad, lumpish hamburger and had a pasty quality that suggested it was undercooked or was supposed to undergo some further treatment. The spicing was heavy handed but monotonic. I ate it for the mild chilli rush, since it had no other merit.
The mango and lentil salad was more of a collection of sliced fruit and some other ingredients than a true salad. I think that there should be some kind of unity to a salad -- a balance of flavors or textures, a contrast of bright to unctuous, a seasonal theme throughout. This was just a collection of disparate flavors, thrown together in a bowl for no good reason.
For the main course, we tried the promising-sounding Junnoon Paneer "Kaathi" Roll. This proved to be a paratha wrapped around an omelet, in turn wrapped around a mediocre, oniony arrabbiata sauce and some firm paneer. I suppose that in theory you could rinse the sauce off the paneer and enjoy the cheese by itself. If you like slightly spicy spaghetti sauce and onions on your omelet, you might like this dish.
We also had a sampler of raita and chutney and Junoon's plain nan. The nan was neither here nor there -- not a subtle or delicate vehicle for anything, not very smoky or buttery in flavor. The spinach raita was inedible: once again, made evidently without heed to how two different flavors go together -- in this case, surprisingly unpleasantly. The coconut chutney, which I don't see on the on-line menu, is simple and unexceptional. It is similar in theme to what you can get at Saravana Bhavan, but inferior in flavor and zing. And at Junnoon it costs $4 a hit.
The meal's standout was a sweet/sour green papaya chutney. This was actually almost good, with some of the slippery-sweet vinegar quality of, say, Zuni's red-onion pickle. But I think it tasted good mostly in contrast to the rest of the meal: I would drive an hour for pickle at Zuni; no one in their right culinary mind would drive an hour for this papaya chutney.
The meal was, overall, so full of sweet things that neither of us could eat dessert. But we did have the fairly potable, if somewhat cold, chai.
Incidentally, and somewhat irrelevantly, the service was perfunctory at best, with too much I-memorized-this explanation, two many questions -- 'are you drinking bottled or tap water this evening?' -- one wrong dish, and a lot of juggling of plates that didn't really fit on our overly long, I-have-to-lean-forward-to-converse table.
Alas, Junnoon. In downtown Palo Alto, spend your $40 per person at Evvia, or spend half as much (or less) for reliable, edible food at Janta, Peninsula Creamery, Darbar, Andale, Jing Jing, or Gordon Biersch.
Junnoon: Eclectic Modern Indian. 150 University, Palo Alto.