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Sep 30, 2006 12:26 AM

Junnoon in Palo Alto. Trying too hard is just not enough.

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.

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  1. David, you are doing a yeoman's job. First Mantra and now this. I was looking forward to trying this spot, lured by the Tabla associations, so a special thanks for this report.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Really? I found Tabla to be the most overrated and disappointing restaurant I've been to in NY.

      1. re: Husky

        Yes, I would love to find the wild striped bass curry and the the delicious items on the thali I had at the Bread Bar out here. One of the few times I've had a fish curry made with sublimely fresh fish that wasn't cooked to death and then some. Now, that was three or four years ago.


        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Maybe I caught the Bread Bar on an off night. The food was mediocre and the service was well below par. This was four months ago. Perhaps Cardoz is spreading himself too thin and not minding the shop well...

      2. re: Melanie Wong

        Go for drinks and dessert? They are very good with the drinks (says the person who had more than one mint limonita) and the molten chocolate cake was outstanding (though my opinion was that they could have backed off the cinnamon just a bit to let the cardamom shine through).

      3. For an interesting review from someone who ate there 6 times check out SF Gourmet:

        The food I had at the Bread Bar at Tabla was positively fantastic. I would love to see that kind of place in the Bay Area.

        2 Replies
        1. re: AmySherman

          Agreed about Junoon, but my 2 experiences weren't nearly as negative as the report above. After eating at Bread Bar many times over many NY trips, I finally made a reservation at Tabla and it was one of the best meals I've ever had anywhere. This was within the past 6 months. I too wish for something, even at Bread Bar's level, here in the Bay Area.

          1. re: Dan Wodarcyk

            First, I agree they have a great bartender. I went to Junnoon when it first opened with a group of eight so don't remember much except that I had an excellent margarita & didn't like a certain fish with rice flakes on it.

            I visited Junnoon again about a month ago & really liked it. Unlike the report above, I liked the velvet lamb kebob, perhaps it might have tasted better in a smaller version not unlike Amber's shammi kebabs. Based on research, I knew to order the Old Delhi Style Chicken & it did not disappoint. I find chicken curry dishes usually heavy with cream & tomatoes, whereas this one although rich, had a nice flavor. The other two dishes at our table were the tandoori lamb chops & the lamb biriyani - both good but not as good as the chicken. Thanks to chowhound & yelp recs, the guess work in ordering has diminished. Just so you know where I'm coming from - I'd recommed Tamarine any day for drinks, service & ambiance but not necessarily for food. Only a few dishes are good rest are okay. And I love Evvia!

        2. Great report, David! We were disappointed in Junnoon and Mantra, also. In contrast, it's amazing how well Evvia has held up over all these years.