Hours: Lunch Sun.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thu. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m.
Prices: Lunch buffet $8; starters $2-6; entrées $9-12
Fare: Northern Indian
Atmosphere: Casual and collegial
Liquor: Some beer; BYOB wine
If all of Oakland were a term paper, it would be overly long and under-organized but full of gems of ideas, some of them just needing a little more polishing than others. It would have coffee and cigarette ash spilled on its pages, and grammatical mistakes. And Craig Street would be its abstract: a two-block summary of the best Oakland has to offer, an eclectic corridor of specialty shops and international restaurants leading straight to the world-class museum at the end of the street.
Along with the Indian grocery across the way, Star of India is Craig Street's beacon to those who bring to Oakland their homegrown appetites for Indian cooking. The spacious dining room is neither fussy nor spare, but flatters its peculiar mirrored-lattice walls -- not to mention its customers -- with low lighting, making for a casual and cozy dining experience. Except for one or two token dishes, the menu is comprised almost exclusively of fare from the Northern Indian lands of rice, curry and the tandoor.
Nizam's Choice provides a sampler of appetizers including a big samosa, a couple pieces of tandoori chicken tikka and two pakora, sweet potato-cauliflower fritters fried in chickpea flour. The samosa filling had a texture hovering right on the cusp between creamy and fluffy, but the exterior was chewy in spots instead of uniformly crispy. The chicken tikka, golf-ball-sized chunks of seasoned and grilled white meat, was flavorful if slightly dry, while the pakora -- a favorite snack of Angelique's -- made clear to Jason the reason for her preference, with its intense yet mellow pairing of bitter-sweet vegetables and richly aromatic seasoning.
We also tucked into an assorted bread basket, with plain and garlic nan -- soft, puffy flatbread -- and aloo paratha, flatbead stuffed with potatoes and peas. The nan was excellent, airy on the inside and toasty on the outside; the garlic version was deeply infused with garlicky goodness without the sharpness of raw or overcooked cloves. The paratha was less impressive, with only a thin trace of potato, even more scarce peas and an excess of salt -- a foreshadowing of the flavor of dishes to come.
In keeping with the sampler theme, Jason ordered for his entrée the tandoori mixed grill, which combined more boneless chicken tikka with bone-in chicken, shrimp, lamb and ground lamb seekh kabob. The dark meat of the bone-in bird had a moist interior, which contrasted deliciously with crisp, strongly seasoned edges. The lone shrimp on the plate was large but overly salty while the big cut of lamb was satisfactorily flavorful but, in texture, somewhat dry and only moderately tender. Of this mixed bag of a mixed grill, it was the seekh kabob, which emerged as a revelation to us. A cylinder of spiced ground lamb: Indian sausage! While we are partial to this preparation in any cuisine, we fell instantly in love with this new (to us) manner of pairing the distinctive flavor of lamb with the bold array of warm Northern Indian spices.
Angelique's chicken do piaza -- braised with herbs, spices, peppers and onions -- only increased our confidence in Star of India's mastery of dark meat (our favorite in any case). The chicken was, again, wonderfully moist and tender, this time complemented by lightly sauteed vegetables in a velvety, slightly sweet sauce. Spice lovers, take note: If you like it hot, you'll want to dial it up on the 1-10 scale. Angelique's 4 barely registered as spicy.
A companion's curry of lamb and spinach had a supple texture and would have made for a finely flavored, hearty stew if not, again, for a heavy hand with the salt. Perhaps if the dish had been ordered spicy instead of as mild as possible, the salt would not have stood out so much; but really, one should not have to sacrifice subtlety of seasoning in any cuisine.
This, in the end, was our main barrier to fully enjoying Star of India. Oakland is salty enough without raining the grains into curries and marinades; we'd rather savor those spices that are truly the stars of India.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars