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Confessed Breads of India Super-Fan

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Melanie Wong Nov 5, 2000 10:34 PM

Jim said, ". . . Breads of India in Berkeley is stylish, but anybody who knows Indian food--as professional critics should--knows it's fake, and anybody who knows ANY kind of food knows it's lame, and that it prospers solely on basis of style and trendiness)."

Jim, I love Breads of India and have been there 6 times. There are very few restaurants except the ones that've been around for decades that I can say that about.

I'm still trying to figure out what they served/did to you that provoked this kind of response. Stylish and trendy??? Yes, it's clean and bright but bare-bones decor at best. Maybe you're of the school that the quality of Indian or Chinese restaurants is inversely proportional to the cleanliness (my father was a believer). The restaurant is in a decidedly UN-trendy neighborhood, in fact, one where I'll not venture unaccompanied after dark. The place doesn't have a liquor license for wine/beer nor do they allow BYO --- I mention this because having an esoteric wine list or cool cocktails seems to be defining trendy Asian restaurants around here. Prices are really low, so you're not charged a "style" premium for the food.

My first time at Breads of India was for lunch after raves from my sister. She'd been there several times by this point and had the beginnings of a collection of the daily menus which she faxed to me. This was a few years ago soon after the first of several favorable press reviews. Since then, she and Larry have eaten there many, many times and become well-acquainted with the owners. My favorite meals have been with them, not that we're treated in a special way, but because we'll order all five entrees/breads on the day's menu to share.

The breads are really incredible. Now I barely touch the naan I'm served almost anywhere else. There's a reason for the restaurant's name, this is where they shine. The two times I've had chicken tandoori (various seasonings), it was the weakest offering of the meal, and once the vegetarian entrée didn't offer much excitement. Besides the breads, what I love about the food is the brightness and freshness of flavor. None of those gray, stale-tasting veggies, greasy puddles or oily aftertaste. And, every dish tastes different with its own range of spices and seasonings, not just variations on the same theme, which makes it very fun to share around the table.

If you have a problem with the detailed descriptions of each dish on the menu, you don't have to read it. With only 5 entrees that change daily, they've got a whole 8 1/2 x 11 sheet to fill up. I like to know what's in the food I'm putting in my mouth. This is a Californian quirk --- we value local, organic ingredients out here. I suspect this is even more important in Berkeley. I support giving credit to the people who grow/raise quality products because it builds appreciation for honest food and hopefully creates a sustainable market.

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  1. j
    Jim Leff RE: Melanie Wong Nov 6, 2000 11:16 AM

    [I replied to this last night, but this is a better thought-out response]

    Well, right off the bat there goes my claim that anyone who knows food won't like Breads of India! Melanie certainly knows food! So while I'll ratchet down a few degrees of conclusion leaping, and also state that I've only eaten there once (though i've had my impression corroborated by several India-savvy locals), I've just got to say that putting a big notice on top of an Indian menu boasting of the use of olive oil rather than ghee is not the best possible boding.

    There's nothing WRONG with olive oil, per se, and there's no reason a restaurant can't make interesting fusion cuisine using Indian touches and olive oil rather than the standard ghee. But they aspire to offer a copiously authentic taste of India, and you can't do it with olive oil. Period.

    And that's a problem, because this place tries to have it both ways. They go to almost absurd degrees to explain how impeccably authentic their food is; their dishes' regional origins are described with nearly-scholarly prose on their menu, impressing diners with the depths of knowledge and tradition that seem to inform the food.

    But it's made with OLIVE OIL, and everything tastes extremely polite and toned down.

    While I'd be the first to say that authenticity should take a distant second place to deliciousness, I found this place neither seriously Indian (and while I've never travelled there, the Indian cuisines are among the ones with which I have the most experience) NOR delicious. But, as I said, I do respect your taste. So while I won't concede that this is ANY kind of real Indian food, I'll take your word for it that stuff can sometimes taste good here. And if that's the case, I'd probably enjoy that stuff as much as you do.

    As for trendiness...well, people do line up nightly to eat here. And while it's far from chic, it does its best to present a fairly Epcotian gringo-friendly ambiance. Neither of which would be a problem if I liked the food better. The food's the thing. But again, the food I had there disappointed greatly, and so I viewed the trappings with a particularly jaundiced eye.

    Finally, I'm nearly offended that you'd think my problem with this place is that it's "clean". What on earth is THAT about?

    ciao

    10 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff
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      Howler RE: Jim Leff Nov 6, 2000 11:17 AM

      "But they aspire to offer a copiously authentic taste of India, and you can't do it with olive oil. Period."

      yup, i'd agree with that. and there hasn't been a restaurant on this planet that has ever offered good indian bread. and i mean good as made from freshly milled flour and eaten hot off the tava, dabbed with ghee. a big maharastrian comfort food is fresh shredded chapatti, dabbed with fresh butter and doused in warm milk (as you would your morning cereal), eaten with a bit of pickle on the side. heaven! there's not a restaurant that could create bread to stand up to that kind of treatment.

      naans are popular in india because they are a novelty - fluffy, over-the-top creations. you can't seriously imagine eating naan every meal. its the wonderful chapatti, the freshly made roti that carries the everyday meal, and those are to be found nowhere outside homes, mores the pity.

      1. re: Howler
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        Melanie Wong RE: Howler Nov 16, 2000 08:04 PM

        BoI does dab a small amount of ghee on the breads, not olive oil.

        You're comments on naan vs. chapati or roti are new to me. I don't eat bread every day and am really picky when I do. I did make a point to order a tandoori roti in addition to my usual naan last week to go with my order and it was a different kind of experience. More integral, more character (extra singe marks)and more toothsome.

      2. re: Jim Leff
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        Brandon RE: Jim Leff Nov 7, 2000 03:46 PM

        Hi

        I have eaten at breads of India once. The food was good, not spectacular, but good. Its a reasonably priced menu, and I'll happily return.

        I think you're way to caught up in the whole ghee/olive oil thing. You are talking about a very typical approach in (sadly) fat phobic California. I often share this feeling when it comes to California- Mexican food. I hate when "gringos" eliminate fatty cuts of meat, or saturated cooking fats in the name of lightening up the fare. The end result does taste funny. I like tortillas made with LARD! They taste GREAT! I'm not going to try to live on them though.

        I understand you feelings about "Breads". But taken as they are the do what they do well, and offer their customers a pretty good value.

        I agree with Melanie on the whole "trendy" issue though this neighborhood is anything but trendy. I once worked a few blocks away in Oakland. Ghetto, bullet holes, scary!

        Much Love to the Hounds!

        CHOW!!!!!

        1. re: Brandon
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          Jim Leff RE: Brandon Nov 7, 2000 03:53 PM

          Any place where people consistently line up and wait to eat is, in my opinion, trendy. I'm not sure how class and nabe enter into that equation.

          1. re: Jim Leff
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            Dave Feldman RE: Jim Leff Nov 7, 2000 11:47 PM

            Jim,

            You seem to be using the word "trendy" in a way that I don't understand. When I think of a trendy restaurant, I think of a popular restaurant, but also one that is in some way faddish. In other words, it is likely that the popularity is ephemeral.

            By your criteria, ("a place where people line up & wait to eat") wouldn't McDonald's or DiFara's or Gennaro be trendy?

            1. re: Dave Feldman
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              Brandon RE: Dave Feldman Nov 8, 2000 12:58 AM

              Howdy

              I think Dave and are are in agreement. I almost made a McDonalds reference myself. A restaraunt had better have a mealtime line, if not it's going to fail. I use trendy to illustrate lack of substance. I don't find that to be the case here.

              I try to avoid trendy restaraunts. They do little other empty your wallet. When I ate at Breads of India the place was empty except for 2 other tables. Hardly the crowd I expect on A Saturday lunch hour, trendy or no.

              You still don't understand the line, I still don't understand the venom. If you think the place is to Indian what Taco Bell is to Mexican thats okay. I don't think the place is anywhere near as bad as you make it out to be.

              We must agree to disagree on this one.

              CHOW!!!!!

            2. re: Jim Leff
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              Limster RE: Jim Leff Nov 8, 2000 01:00 AM

              Besides being hard to get in and a potential long wait, I wouldn't hold a restaurant's popularity against it. And if the food is good enough, I personally feel that it's worth waiting for.

              On another note, I've never had Indian food made with olive oil ever, so that sounds rather unusual to me. But will the the use of olive oil significantly change the flavor of an Indian dish (that is already loaded with a range of spices) such that it is no longer as good as it could potentially be?

              Maybe I'll give "Breads" a whirl to find out. Could those who have been to "Breads" and other good Indian place that don't use olive oil draw comparisons between equivalent dishes?

              1. re: Limster
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                Brandon RE: Limster Nov 8, 2000 01:49 PM

                Limster,

                Go have lunch on a Saturday. Tanya and I did @ 1PM.
                We walked in and sat down. Tanya had a tandoori salmon dish she enjoyed, I had a lamb curry, along with the recomended breads on the side. It was not a religious experience, but it was tasty and fulfilling.

                CHOW!!!!!

                1. re: Limster
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                  Melanie Wong RE: Limster Nov 16, 2000 07:56 PM

                  I had the chance last week to visit my sister who was home on sick leave, and despite her fever, she got very animated talking about Breads of India. She and her husband have eaten there at least once a month since it opened. there's always something new to try since the 5 entrees and 5 breads (from a 100+ bread repertoire) change daily. They'll order 3 entrees and 3 breads, plus raita, for the two of them (the prices are so low this is still inexpensive)to have a selection to sample. She said that among the 6 items, at least 3 will be very tasty, some times all will be good, and the rest will be okay but not as remarkable. She did criticize the salad greens as not as fresh as they could be. She used to keep track of the different dishes they liked but gave up since it's unlikely that they'll see them again.

            3. re: Jim Leff
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              Melanie Wong RE: Jim Leff Nov 16, 2000 07:44 PM

              If the recipes aren't traditional, e.g., using olive oil, then they shouldn't claim to be authentic. The Californication of the food shows up in the lighter and less greasy presentation and the flavor of the main ingredients dominating the spicing. Fresh spinach is intensely spinachy here.

              But when I think about what's going on with Cantonese chefs in Hong Kong (using cheese and olive oil!), maybe things are changing to an international style in the homeland.

              I'm sorry that you're nearly offended by the comparison with my beloved father, not my intent. Part of the chowhounding lore he passed on to us as children is that a Chinese restaurant with greasy windows would be a better bet than a more hygenic one. On spotting the infamously grimy and grungy Naan 'n' Curry, one South Asian friend said, "this looks like Lahore, it must be good". For some, an eating place has to be as dirty as in the old country to be worthwhile. Maybe I missed the mark a bit with "clean", you were clearly bothered by the "Epcotian gringo-friendly ambiance".

            4. r
              rachel hope RE: Melanie Wong Nov 8, 2000 08:49 PM

              Clean? (throat-clearing noises). I ate at Breads last week and had the occaision to use the bathroom, which is in the kitchen, and I can assure you that neither were particularly clean.

              As for the food. I found it unimpressive, but not bad. The food was warm, filling and pleasant, but had none of the subtlety or complexity of flavor evident at good Indian restaurants (for example try Ajanta on Solano Avenue). The breads did not demand to be eaten. I nonchalantly abandoned more than half of mine. That's a VERY bad sign at a restaurant that trumpets it's bread.

              Last note: Breads is opening an off-shoot called "Zaika" (I think) on Shattuck that promises several specialized cuisines including Indian-Jewish. The space looks nice from the outside. I will try it as soon as it opens and report back.

              6 Replies
              1. re: rachel hope
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                Melanie Wong RE: rachel hope Nov 15, 2000 06:38 PM

                I can't vouch for the kitchen and bathroom, but don't you think the dining area is much cleaner than other Indian restaurants of that price range? I mean, Naan 'n' Curry in SF Tenderloin has wallpaper strips peeling off the walls and draping onto the tables, and there's this dark red gunk in the cracks of the old linoleum floor that looks like dried blood. When I'm waiting for my take-out order, I'll stand or sit on the edge of the dirty velvet chairs and haven't been able to stomach eating on premise. Kabana Pakistani on University Ave. has grease dripping off the mirrors in the eating area, and I find the food at BoI better (and the atmosphere more pleasant) than this highly recommended Berkeley dive. Rohit Singh, BoI's owner, said they're constantly being reported to the health inspectors (probably by customers who are traipsing through the kitchen on the way to the WC) and there's never been a violation.

                I'm sorry to hear that you didn't like the breads, as that's the main attraction for me. Admittedly, I haven't been to BoI since January.

                I'll be very interested in your report on the new place. It's supposed to be a white table cloth, more upscale version. Getting a rep as "best Indian" is a mixed blessing. Many who come in based on the reviews are unhappy with the service, bare bones, cash-only, no alcohol, turn the table fast environment.

                1. re: Melanie Wong
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                  Alexandra Eisler RE: Melanie Wong Nov 16, 2000 11:49 AM

                  Naan 'n' Curry is the Indian dive-of-the-month of the Consulate's curry club.

                  It's probably a good thing that I'm so focussed on the food, I'm not aware of my surroundings...

                  1. re: Alexandra Eisler
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                    Melanie Wong RE: Alexandra Eisler Nov 16, 2000 06:01 PM

                    Please tell us more about CCC. What else do they recommend? What do you like at Naan 'n' Curry? When I'm there I'm thinking more about whether my car's going to be towed away from an illegal parking spot . . .

                    1. re: Melanie Wong
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                      Alexandra Eisler RE: Melanie Wong Nov 20, 2000 12:56 PM

                      That's why we take the express bus!

                      The curry club is our informal Friday lunch group, and the seedier the dive, the better. (Of course the food has to be excellent or we don't bother!) I'm usually out of the office on Friday and on Monday, HATE hearing about the lunch I've missed.

                      At Naan 'n' Curry, I order the chicken alu tikka and garlic naan, both superb. The lamb and okra is very good, although a tad oily, and next time I'm ordering lamb buryani because every other table seems to have it and we always comment how good it looks.

                      Have you tried the hallal butcher next door? Apparently the meat is very, very good and they cut it to order, based on the dish you are cooking.

                      1. re: Alexandra Eisler
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                        Melanie Wong RE: Alexandra Eisler Nov 20, 2000 04:04 PM

                        Last night I was at the home of one of HM's esteemed subjects and asked whether he was a member of the Consulate Curry Club. He perked to it quickly and said it was something that he needed to be a part of! I may be sending him your way.

                        I haven't tried the halal market next door. When I was in NnC last week, the folks from next door were running in and out fixing their dinner and taking it next door. It was amusing to see them grab bits from each other's pans and squabble over them. I did notice how good the lamb and okra looked that one woman fixed for herself, and then she topped it with a whitish sauce and a red sauce squirted from a squeeze bottle. What would those be?

                2. re: rachel hope
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                  gordon wing RE: rachel hope Nov 18, 2000 10:24 AM

                  I haven't been to Breads of Indian but I agree that
                  Ajanta is worth a visit. The food is more refined than most other Indian restaurants and the atmosphere is pleasant. You can actually have a conversation while dining! They feature dishes from different regions of India on a rotating basis. One of my favorites is the tandoori fish ( often chilean sea bass ) - very moist.
                  A nice range of flavors - everything doesn't taste the same.

                3. j
                  JenniferFishWilson RE: Melanie Wong Aug 26, 2001 05:06 PM

                  Breads of India was mentioned in Sept. Bon Appetit: "...a favorite with Bay Area cognoscenti..." Also mentioned as "Indian Favorites": Bay Leaf: NY; Kashmir: Boston; Khajuraho: Philadelphia; Shiva: Miami; Tamarind: NY.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: JenniferFishWilson
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                    Melanie Wong RE: JenniferFishWilson Aug 26, 2001 05:11 PM

                    Oh, but we don't believe those guys.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong
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                      JenniferFishWilson RE: Melanie Wong Aug 26, 2001 05:23 PM

                      I think Jim said some of "those guys" are Chowhound posters. (I KNOW he said that about Martha Stewart staffers).
                      One of my all time favorite movie lines:
                      "Who ARE those guys?"
                      Oops--Jim's going to send me to "Not about Food" if I'm not a good girl.

                      1. re: JenniferFishWilson
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                        Jim Leff RE: JenniferFishWilson Aug 26, 2001 11:54 PM

                        Most of the food press reads us. So watch what you say about "those guys"!

                        : )

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