At Avva's Kitchen, the peripatetic Ganesan Naidu patrols the restaurant with an armful of menus and an obvious enthusiasm for serving his customers. He assumes many roles in the course of a meal: host, maitre'd, waiter, culinary tutor, explicator of menu terms and, for all I know, chief cook and bottle-washer.
But his most memorable role by far was that of fireman. During a recent lunch hour, he rushed over to our table to extinguish the blaze inside my companion's mouth - an inferno ignited by blistering Indian spices on a slab of chicken. "Do you need help?" Naidu inquired solicitously of my gasping, red-faced friend. He then proffered a basket of naan, a flatbread, to help put out the conflagration.
Avva's, on West Central Avenue, is a wonderful place for diners to expand their horizons by taking a chance on unusual dishes that may initially appear intimidating.
There are vegetarian and nonvegetarian foods that make for a feast of good eating. The unfamiliar names - biryani, thali, uthappam, besibellbath, paaya, dosa masala, and many others - are Hindi. But once having tried these exotic tastes of south India, you'll want to try them again.
Translated into English on Avva's menu, and further explained by the helpful Naidu, the dishes feature many of the same basic foods as those found on most American tables, such as chicken, lamb, shrimp, rice, lentils, beans, spinach, and tomatoes. Giving them their incomparable taste and individuality are yogurts, chutneys, sauces, herbs, curries, and other spices ranging in degrees of heat from innocuously mild to ferociously hot.
The dcor is a confusion of color and design, dominated by striking red and gold Indian fabrics suspended from the dining room ceiling that look like upside-down ottomans. Seating is ample, and the restaurant swirls with Indian pop music and pungent aromas.
Though we tried an array of individual dishes, a more sensible approach might be to order the daily $7 lunch buffet for an inexpensive sampling of Avva's fare. Included would be what's billed as "Chinese food with an Indian twist," plus 17 entrees and wonderful desserts.
Our choices ran the gamut, beginning with a $3.95 cup of paaya (lamb soup), mango juice, and a yogurty mango lassi, both $2.50. Chicken thali ($9.95) amounted to a sampler of soups and sauces: chicken vegetable, lentil, hot pepper, and chili pickle, the latter two bringing tears to our eyes. They were served with aromatic basmati rice, garlic naan, a mint dip with jalapeno, and Indian baklava with a sweet tamarind sauce, honey, and cardamom.
Another entre, Tandoori mixed grill ($12.95), consisted of large chicken pieces and lamb sausage infused with mint. On another visit, chilly chicken ($8.95) was anything but, a Chinese-inspired dish with an "Indian twist," in this case medium-hot sauce. Mild sauce ensured a tearless encounter with plump shrimp masala ($13.95).
Naidu wouldn't let us leave without sampling a dessert, rice kheer, from the buffet. It's a an altogether scrumptious mix of rice with 2 per cent milk, melted butter, sugar, honey, rosewater, and toasted nuts and raisins - reason alone to make a return visit.
A final note: Avva's has applied for a liquor license, but in the meantime, patrons may bring along their own, without corkage fees or other charges.
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