Ajanta in Berkeley Offers a Feast for All Senses
Ajanta Restaurant identifies itself with the motto “Distinctive Indian Cuisine,” serving regional delicacies from every corner of India. To me, this unique place in Berkeley offers so much more—the true magic of the country that continues to fascinate the world with its jewels and spices, its philosophy and art.
Step in and inhale the aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander, and feast your eyes on the art on the walls and light boxes on the ceiling reflecting the images from the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra – and be transported.
I thought I was well-versed in Indian cuisine. After all, I used to live on Devon Avenue in Chicago, which prides itself in a variety of restaurants with authentic Indian fare as well as cream-based pleaser menus adjusted for the American palate.
Dining at Ajanta, I discovered some exciting new flavors and new ways of preparing the old favorites. In other words, I was blown away.
The hospitable chef/owner of Ajanta, Lachu Moorjani, explained to me that the dishes were prepared in a range of five degrees of chili heat. I chose “two” after he said, “One is for babies… Indian babies.” Everything I tried that evening was spiced just enough to make it interesting, but never overwhelmingly hot.
It would be hard to name a favorite, as I liked every single bite of my badal jaam from Lucknow – fried slices of eggplant brushed with homemade tomato sauce and spiced with mango powder and black rock salt; bheh kofta from Punjab – lotus root balls in yellow curry sauce with cashews and spices; and a monthly special Hyderabadi murg korma from Andhra Pradesh – tender chicken pieces simmered in coconut milk with onion, garlic, lemon juice, sesame seeds and spices.
New dishes appear every month, and usually become immediately popular, like salmon tikki – dill-ridden wild fish cakes bathed in yogurt-mint-cilantro sauce.
The rest of the extensive menu offers all of the traditional stars of Indian cuisine—ling cod in green curry from Mumbai, tandoori meats marinated in yogurt and spices and served on sizzling cast iron platters, and side orders of aromatic sauces and chutneys.
Ajanta house specials combine non-traditional ingredients with the intricacies of precise recipe preparation. Inspired tandoori creations include dayboat scallops served with yogurt-mint-tamarind sauce; chicken chaat, shredded and tossed with oil, lime juice, red onion, cilantro, ginger and spices; and Portobello mushrooms with yogurt-cashew-mint sauce.
Of course, there are various house-made breads at Ajanta, some with creative twists, like onion kulcha – naan stuffed with both green and yellow onions, and whole wheat chapati. Even a side order of basmati rice comes adorned with cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.
Of all the house made ice cream desserts I picked saffron pistachio sprinkled with sugar-coated fennel seeds, and that was quite a treat.
Adding to Ajanta’s appeal is the fact that it’s a rare Indian restaurant that uses mostly organic produce, organic chicken, free-range meats not treated with hormones and anti-biotics, and sustainable local seafood. Ajanta is a green-certified business.
Another wonderful treat here, which anyone can take home and use for years, is the Ajanta, Regional Feasts of India cookbook written by chef Lachu Moorjani. This labor of love not only details every step in elaborate preparations of many regional dishes from all over India, but also introduces Indian states and regions and their favored cuisines with well-written essays that open every chapter of the book.
The prominent chef and the book author guarantees success as long as you follow his directions. Ajanta is located at 1888 Solano Avenue in Berkeley. The restaurant is open for daily for dinner from 5:30 PM to 9:30 PM and for lunch from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM. Call for reservations (510) 526-4373 or visit their website.