An Indian restaurant called Sultan opened July 27 in the Ramada Inn on Taylor Street. This is welcome news because until now, finding an Indian meal around here meant a trek of -- well, actually, half a block north to O'Farrell and a few doors west to Shalimar Garden (once again called Mela). Or a block or so farther west, to Naan 'n' Curry, Pakwan, Shalimar, Chutney, Little Deli or Lahore Karahi.
So Sultan doesn't enjoy a monopoly. But it's trying to bring something different to the table: Mughul-influenced northern dishes enriched by nuts, fruit and dairy, more refined than the rough-and-ready fare served around the corner. This style, which once practically defined Indian restaurant food here, no longer reigns, especially in this neighborhood. Sultan's interpretation is a tad less nuanced and more home-style than others I recall. Spicing is well balanced, chile heat relatively tame. Cream is used with a light hand, mostly. Meat is halal. Sultan doesn't hit the mark with every dish, but at its best it offers one more tasty, reasonably priced Indian option downtown. Some things I've tried:
-- Kofta dil pasand ($5.95): Minced lamb patties in a flavorful gravy of yogurt, ground cashew, tomato and onion, with cardamom, saffron, cilantro and a medium chile heat. (The menu describes this as a chicken dish, but that's no longer true. The chef switched to lamb after deciding the chicken version was too dry.)
-- Chicken korma ($5.95): Chunks of chicken in a pale orange sauce with almonds, yogurt, a touch of cream, tomato, black cardamom and cilantro, among other things, mild and nicely balanced.
-- Chicken jhagiri ($5.95): Chunks of chicken cooked (a bit too long) in a mild but pleasant thick yogurt sauce with tomato, onion, golden raisins and the vaguely herbal black cumin.
-- Mutton dum pukhta ($5.95): Chunks of lamb (on this menu, ``mutton'' means lamb) slow-cooked in what's described as an herb and almond sauce. The meat was tough and the sauce was sweetish with indistinct flavors. Unlike the other dishes, this one was larded up with cream.
-- Dal palak ($3.95): Moong dal cooked with lots of fresh spinach, soupier than I'm used to but homey and full of flavors -- ginger, chile, a hint of clove, and finished with a baghar of cumin and garlic.
-- Dal panch ratni, or ``five jewels'' ($3.95): Chana, masoor, moong, toor and urad dals, the last contributing a creamy body to this creamless dish. Flavors of cumin, chile, tomato, turmeric and coriander, among others, were well integrated.
-- Boondi raita ($2.50): In this variation, which doesn't turn up on many menus, little fried puffs of chickpea flour provide a crunchy contrast to the yogurt, which also contains red onion and cilantro. Another raita choice, which I haven't tried, is a Kashmiri version with fruit ($3.50).
Also on the menu are tandoor meats and breads; butter chicken, vindaloo (chicken or lamb), palak paneer and other popular curries; sweets, including kheer, kulfi and carrot halwa; and pakoras, samosas, ``Sultan special egg roll'' and other appetizers. Speaking of egg roll, the takeout menu promises ``Muglai Chinese'' weekend specials like ``chicken sazwan,'' but these aren't available yet.
Those who've been around a few decades (uh, like me) will remember when Indian restaurants in this town were far fewer and mostly pricier than they are today. Over the years some of them slipped into mediocrity, dumbing down the seasoning and swamping their dishes in cream. But at the top of their game, they served sophisticated, richly flavored Mughul dishes, along with the ever-popular tandoori, in grand and exotic surroundings. Sultan offers a humbler take on some of these foods while holding the Tandoorloin line on pricing: $4-$5 for vegetable dishes, $6 for meat dishes, $9 for seafood. As for the setting, the room does have a carpet, raising its decor above the standard of the 'hood, but this still looks much like the hotel coffee shop it once was -- though Mughulization is under way as a mural slowly takes shape on the long north wall.
Sultan, too, is a work in progress. The waiters, mostly members of the owner's family, are friendly but inexperienced. Service can take a while. And the menu continues to evolve. The owner, Gujarati by way of Bombay, is thinking of introducing a vegetarian thali lunch. The timing would be good, after the unfortunate changeover at Haveli (see Junior's update below).
339 Taylor St., San Francisco
Open daily. Breakfast (non-Indian) 7-11 a.m., lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5-11 p.m.