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Dec 9, 2006 05:18 AM

Chowdown at Om, San Rafael

Nor rain nor gloom of night nor high winds on the Richmond Bridge prevented 8 Chowhounders (joined later by two more) from gathering at this new south Indian restaurant in far downtown San Rafael. They came from the city, they came from the east Bay, some even came from just down the road and they came from LA for heaven's sake, to dine at Marin's only restaurant featuring south Indian cuisine exclusively. It now is also, from my experience, Marin's best Indian restaurant.

We dined on these starters:
Milagai bhajji--stuffed peppers deep fried, served with coconut and coriander chutneys
Era varuval--shrimps coated with a sauce of chilis, ginger, garlic and spices, with mango chutney
Idli with kadappa chutney--small oval rice cakes in a buttery broth with coriander, chili and spices
Then dosas:
Egg pepper dosa--a soft black peppery lentil pancake stuff with egg spread
Ghee rava masala dosa--a crisp pancake served with sambar and tomato chutney
Onion chili Uthappam--dosa-like, but thicker and softer, with carmelized onion and jalapeno slices in the batter
Then on to the curries:
Kozhi varutha curry--chicken chunks with pepper sauce (billed as firey) and coconut milk
Bellari lamb curry--lamb chunks with onion, tomato, chili, tamarind
Hyderabad Chepa fry--tilapia fillets marinated and grilled with sauce
Tajore crab curry--whole crab with spicy curry sauce
And hot chapatis.

Some ordered mango or rose lassi, some Indian beer (Kingfisher--others also available). Rice came with many dishes. Chutneys with each dish.

The restaurant is small, but pleasant and attractive. Service seemed to fall off as the evening progressed with beverage requests forgotten and the necessity of having to ask to have crab-shell filled plates replaced as additional dishes arrived. (If you are serving crab you need to provide plates for shells and extra napkins, at least, I think.) But staff were friendly and made helpful suggestions.

Thanks to Melanie for instigating the evening and taking lead in selecting from the menu. Fellow diners: curry-dive in and please give us your take on dinner at Om.

Om South Indian Cuisine
1518 Fourth Street (just west of E Street)
San Rafael, CA

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  1. This was by far the best South Indian food I've ever had. The curries were good but not particularly distinguished, but all the other dishes were very good to outstanding.

    Era varuval--shrimps coated with a sauce of chilis, ginger, garlic and spices, with mango chutney was the best shrimp dish I've ever had in an Indian restaurant. The shrimp were not overcooked, the sauce was deliciously complex, and the mango chutney, much to our surprise, brought the dish into focus.

    Idli with kadappa chutney--small oval rice cakes in a buttery broth with coriander, chili and spices was unique and delicious. We all remarked that we never thought "chutney" would be soupy, but were told that chutney just means "mashed together" and thus a chutney can take many forms. Speaking of mashed, this dish was best if you mashed the idli and spooned the sauce over them.

    Then dosas:
    Egg pepper dosa--a soft black peppery lentil pancake stuff with egg spread reminded me of a something I read recently which pointed out that Indian dishes like this with lots of black pepper are very old dishes dating from before chile peppers were introduced to the Old World from the New.

    Ghee rava masala dosa--a crisp pancake served with sambar and tomato chutney and stuffed with a potato filling. Melanie hit the nail on the head when she said the crisp edges of the rava dosa reminded her of hash browns. In fact, both the dosas reminded me of American breakfast foods: one pancakes and eggs, and one hash browns and home fries. The tomato chutney that accompanied the dosas was oustanding.

    Onion chili Uthappam--dosa-like, but thicker and softer, with carmelized onion and jalapeno slices in the batter was so pretty, with swirling strips of red onion and green chiles.

    In general, these dishes were not blazing hot, but well-spiced and complex, with enough heat to create a glow but not a burn.

    I wish this place was closer to me -- I can see dropping in regularly for the shrimp and a dosa.

    It was great meeting some new-old hounds!

    1. After we had the three starters (Milagai bhajji, Era varuval, Idli with kadappa chutney) I remarked that maybe we should stop while we were ahead because they were all very good, I'd say great for the latter two. I had never had anything remotely like the Idli, described on the menu as "steamed rice cakes" which wouldn't have led me to order it. But it was unique and delicious, and the "chutney"/broth or whatever you want to call what the rice cakes were floating in was delicious with the rice cakes or on its own.

      The chicken curry was surprisingly mild in flavor (especially considering the "cooked with fiery pepper sauce" menu description), but after I got used to it I found it quite good with complex subtle flavors. I thought the lamb in the lamb curry was a bit tough, but the sauce very good. The Hyderabad Chepa (fried fish) was very good. The crab curry... well the crab in my crab claws didn't have much flavor and was a lot of work for what I got to eat, but the thick spicy-hot sauce was wonderful. Don't think I'd order it again, though.

      A good time was had by all, and much of the food was at a very high level.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Mick Ruthven

        That was amazinly prescient of you! The three curries at the end did have complex spicing, yet in each, I found a "hole in the middle" where the chili heat should be. As you noted, the heat was really missing in the chicken curry. I felt like the kitchen was holding back and afraid to add the fire.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          The chicken curry was so mild that I don't think it could get that way by the kitchen holding back as in afraid to make it too hot. There just wasn't any heat or other forward spice at all. I did find it quite good in its own right, but am not sure what to expect of it again considering that "cooked with fiery pepper sauce" menu description. I'll probably have to try it again. As I recall, the sauce with the crab was quite spicy and hot. Maybe not to you :-)

          1. re: Mick Ruthven

            In my experience, South Indian food is some of the hottest around, so these dishes were relatively mild in comparison. The crab saucing was the only one where I felt I needed some starch to help moderate the spicing. The fish fry was interesting with the marked tanginess.

            Later I checked with the two latecomers at the other table. They were very happy with the food, but mentioned that a woman sitting near them sent back two dishes as too hot. I hope the kitchen doesn't get even more timid in seasoning the food.

      2. The idli sound great, and a unique presentation. DH would love to try it. (Usually idli is served with sambar, ie a lentil soup. Did this "chutney" have a lentil base by any chance?) Is it easy to find....say if we were headed up to visit the family in Sonoma for some close to 101?

        DH loves South Indian, so anytime a new place pops up that might be somewhere near our travels we have to check it out.....

        3 Replies
        1. re: janetofreno

          I'll offer an opinion that the broth/chutney with the idli didn't include lentils. Other things came with a sambar, and it was very different from this broth. I'm glad because I loved this broth and didn't much like the sambar (just my taster; others loved it).

          It's very easy to find and about 5 minutes from 101. Take the "main" San Rafael exit and go west on 4th St. That's the most direct way, although probably slower traffic. You can also go west on 3rd St. which is one way west; turn right on E St; at the next block turn left on 4th. It's in that block on the right.

          1. re: janetofreno

            Easy to find. From Sonoma, take the Central San Rafael exit, turn right on Fourth Street and drive about 6 blocks till you come to E Street. Om will be on your right. Invite your sis and hubby and let me know and we could do a dinner for six.

            1. re: janetofreno

              Definitely no lentils in the "chutney" -- the broth was milky white and didn't have any solid bits in it. Really, it was nothing like anything I've ever had in an Indian restaurant. Something else (the dosas, I think) did come with sambar.

            2. Al, thanks so much for doing the legwork on this one as the 'hound in residence and co-host. Hope this inspires others to take the lead on exploring north of the gate.

              Selected dinner photos (era varuval, idli with kadappa chutney, onion chili uthapppam, egg pepper dosa, Tanjore crab curry, ghee rava masala dosa) -

              My pick of the night was the idli with kadappa. Wanted to mention that these were mini idli. Usually I'm not a fan of idli and only like this small size with a higher surface to volume ration. The idli were freshly steamed, bouncy, and had a nice sour note. I'd had mini idli in a ghee base before, but nothing as lovely as this kadappa. I've found a couple recipes on the web, but neither seems like it would turn out like what we were served.

              Kadappa (green gram curry) recipes -

              I commented to Tom Armitage that the texture of Om's kadappa reminded me of cream of chicken soup. It had some of those comforting properties as well, but then that lilt of fresh green chili takes over in the finish. This was quite buttery and tasted of coconuts. It had some bits of onion, a couple whole cloves, and green from fresh cilantro and curry leaves.

              The biggest disappointment for me was the crab curry. Om did a good job with the dry style curry, but the crab itself was inferior material. Mushy, little flavor to the flesh, hard to pull off the shell . . . was this frozen or maybe cooked a few days ahead of time? The lack of freshness was sinful during crab season.

              I have to give a shout out for the sambar and the chatnis. The sambar was very well crafted, even had pearl onions in it. I would have liked a bit more roasted chile pepper heat and smokiness, but still a very nice version. The chutneys all had a nice freshness to them. The green mint chutney was on the mild side, needed more fresh green chile heat. The coconut chutney was lovely, a bit simpler in the second day's batch. The tomato-ginger chutney is about as good as it gets. When I complimented our waiter on it, he said, "it is perfect, isn't it?" Usually I like a bit more sesame flavor, but the extra bite of the fresh ginger more than compensated.

              More posts on Om -

              1. I left the meal a little disappointed, but it's grown on me. My disappointment was due to the curries; they have four curries which are regional dishes from Anrdra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka, plus the crab (whose name at least is Tamil). They were my main interest before the meal began. It was only Melanie's moderating influence that kept us from ordering all of them, and we ended up with the crab, the kozhi chicken (aside: this zh is pronounced as a retroflex "l"), and the bellari lamb. They weren't bad, but they weren't anything special. The sauce was very nice in the crab and lamb, but in all three, the meat itself wasn't very good.

                Nearly everything else we had, however, was excellent. The appetizers have been done justice above, but what made the meal for me was the dosas. They're such a standard (and usually unspectacular) thing that I wouldn't have ordered them myself, but they were much better than I expected. The egg dosa was thick and soft, and well, eggy, and is what I remember most fondly from the meal. Regarding everything else, every dish and every sauce, chutney, and soup was of unusually high quality. The only other specific disappointment was, of all things, the tea--which was old and not especially good despite costing $3.

                The moral is: avoid the pan-south dishes, and stick to the basics, since they do them awfully well.

                1 Reply
                1. re: David Farris

                  My lassi was fair, and too expensive at $3.99. I wanted to add a word about the first appetizer. Individual hot peppers were filled with masala gravy, then battered and fried. The peppers still had a bit of fresh snap to them, great timing on the prep to get that texture to contrast with the softly crisp exterior and silky filling.

                  Now, if you're looking for Andhran curries, do check out Southern Spice Bistro in Mountain View -