It’s called Urban Curry and although it opened in 2009, it’s now under a new partnership and the management of a 24-year-old Pakistani filmmaker and actor who has attracted an eclectic group of youthful patrons: latter-day Beat Dharma Bums and hipsters, probably studying for their master’s degree in pop culture – louche characters from the Broadway-Columbus nexus who know a good thing when they come across one – and Twittering young professionals like the group of a dozen or so who hike up from Levi Strauss down on Battery several times a week to take over a large family-style table in the rear.
The youngster who is breathing new life and Indian spices into Urban Curry is Sher Ali, an ambitious charmer and front-of-the-house man, whose partner Shahid Malik does most of the work in the open kitchen range and the tandoori ovens. Staff is mostly Nepalese, competent and user friendly. It’s a refreshing combination in an area not known for being refreshing.
When asked what changes he had made to Urban Curry since he became a partner in January this year, Ali, who sports a fashionable, three-day stubble on his chin and a bit of spikiness on top, said, “Well, I added a buffet, a home delivery service, and last month I finally hung up a sign outside.”
“What, no sign outside?”
“Only a small one painted on the wall that no one could see.”
The new sign – brightly neon – at least has a chance among the garish, not-so-subtle, sex-oriented screamers.
“No one knew we were a restaurant,” Ali says.
INDIAN AND PAKISTANI
Dining at Urban Curry – and it is a dining experience rather than a heavy feeding frenzy – features classics from both the northern Indian style most of us are used to and some less well-known offerings from Pakistan.
Ali, a Muslim, assures that he runs a halal kitchen according to Muslim dietary strictures. The young man also does not have beer or wine on his menu for the same reason, although he doesn’t mind if patrons bring in their own. To wash down the hot and spicy curries for example, the menu offers an incredibly satisfying smoothie-like mango lassi, chai, fresh orange juice, and bottled soft drinks.
A Telegraph Hill friend – an impressive eater (he has good buds) – suggested Urban Curry for lunch one day and we gave the buffet a try. I had lost track of the large open space after Little Joe’s decamped a few years ago. From the funkiness of Little Joe’s, Urban Curry has morphed into a large open dining room decorated in soft gold-toned walls with gold-beaded curtaining down the center.
Tables are well spaced with white linen cloths topped by glass. There’s practical, stainless steel cutlery and sturdy china plates. A hardwood ceiling kicks back some chatter, but it doesn’t interfere with Ali’s streaming soundtrack of Pandora-generated Indian pop, the rock band REM, and “Miles from India,” un homage to Miles Davis.
Urban Curry was warm and inviting the day my buddy and I were there to try the buffet ($14). On that occasion I tried aloo gobhi (cauliflower and potatoes cooked in an onion-based sauce with Indian herbs and spices – coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, chilies, and such). It was mild but with a depth of flavor that only comes when the spices are cooked for a few minutes, usually in a small pewter ladle, to release their essence.
THE CLAY-LINED TANDOOR
I also nestled a few pieces of that familiar standby, tandoori chicken baked in a clay-lined tandoor. It had been marinated in yogurt and the appropriate spices and dusted with paprika and cayenne and something known as tandoori color – annatto seed, sometimes called the “poor man’s saffron” – and, of course, saffron itself. My next choice was lamb vindaloo, an Anglo-Indian offering from Goa, originally a Portuguese colony on India’s southwest coast.
My friend had the chicken boti and the lamb karahi and added a few spoonsful of dal (yellow lentils cooked in a spicy broth until tender); aloo palak (creamed spinach with potatoes in an onion-based sauce); and basmati rice. We shared, soaking up the sauces with onion naan(unleavened bread baked in the tandoor).
MANGO LASSI AND MASALAS
A few days later at the lunch buffet, I stretched out a bit: mushroom masala – nice and woodsy, flavored in an onion-based sauce, and chicken tikka masala in a mildly spiced cream and tomato sauce. For something new I tried the garlic naan, which was not overtly garlicky, to soak up the sauce. Once more I was struck by those big deep flavors of the curries: hot but not overwhelmingly so. And I had to have that smoothie mango lassi again.
I was in a groove now and decided to go all the way and order dinner from the menu. (The buffet is only offered at lunch and on weekends.) To prepare for the big evening, I did a little research in my cookbook library. Larousse Gastronomique, the culinary bible, has an entry for curry. After informing me that curry probably originated in Persia, it recommends, “add curry powder to taste.” Escoffier’s: A Guide to Modern Cookery has a recipe for mutton l’Indienne. It calls for a “pinch of powdered curry.” Well, OK – I suppose a lot of so-called curry houses do just that – dump in some curry powder. But we’re talking upscale here, where various spices are added for flavor and aroma and some for color.
IT WORKS FOR DE NIRO
Armed with my new knowledge and my appetite, I took my wife and daughter to Urban Curry and introduced them to Ali who leads a double life as restaurateur and movie producer. Why not? It works for Robert De Niro. A while back, Ali produced a suspense movie called Do You Believe with a small band of local actors and appeared in the film himself. It is about to be released in indie theaters.
Our dinner was chicken karahi (boneless chicken sautéed with tomatoes, $9.99); lamb tikka masala (boneless lamb in a mild-spiced cream and tomato sauce, $8.99); saad dal (spinach and lentils, $7.99); basmati rice ($1.99); onion naan ($2.99); and roti (unleavened bread of whole wheat flour, $1.99).
THE BIRTHDAY CURRY
I planned to dine again at Urban Curry to check my impressions for this review when a special opportunity arose. My daughter Laurel’s birthday was coming up, and usually I prepare a big birthday dinner for her. When I asked what she would like, she wanted an Urban Curry dinner at home. So it came to pass. And here’s how that dinner turned out:
That evening a few minutes before seven, I called Urban Curry. Sher Ali himself answered the telephone and took the order. I could hear Miles from India faintly over my cell phone. Twenty-five minutes later our dinner arrived hot and ready to go.
Laurel chose bhindi masala(okra in onion-based sauce, herbs and spices, $7.99); basmati rice ($1.99); tilapia karahi (boneless fish sautéed with tomatoes, herbs and spices, $10.99); onion naan ($2.99); chicken jalfrazi (a Pakistani dish of chicken curry with bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, herbs and spices, $8.99); and prawn vindaloo (tiger prawns with herbs and spices, $12.99). Mango lassi ($2.99) all around.
It was a great birthday dinner augmented by homemade carrot cake. Ali was OK with that although we missed his rice pudding.
Urban Curry: 523 Broadway (between Columbus and Kearny), Sunday–Thursday 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday 11 a.m.–3 a.m.; 415-677-9744, www.urbancurry.com.
Unlike the usual curry-house restaurants many of us are familiar with, Urban Curry is somewhat formal, but has a friendly and helpful staff that makes diners welcome.
It’s a large restaurant and sound is absorbed well and does not bounce around. Background music is unobtrusive but adds to the ambiance.
During the day there’s lots of light from windows facing the street. In the evening, it’s well lit but not glaring. The menu is easily readable.
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Northside San Francisco ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.