Restaurant Reviews :
by Max Hauser
As a rule, when people relate restaurant impressions, the more they know what they're talking about, the less the narrative implies omniscience. (As in "this place is overrated" or "the best Chinese restaurant in Sunnyvale" [when that really means "best of the two I've tried, out of 14, after one meal at each"]). Such phrasing, with the characterising verb "is," furnishes a telltale to alert readers. (The most useful restaurant notes, in contrast, describe: stuff ordered, seen, tasted. Conclusions summarize data, not imperious opinion.)
All that said, Sakoon -- one of the newest of the 90-odd restaurants downtown -- is a phenomenon, and here's why. First, the professional critics' buzz alone would qualify it. Open just months, it surfaced remarkably in the new 2010 Michelin Guide for SF Bay Area (published October), which only lists (i.e., recommends) a couple percent of all the region's restaurants.*
Sakoon is a unique stylish Indian place with skilled imaginative kitchen. In half a dozen meals under varied circumstances, I and all I've been with were consistently pleased and surprised by the kitchen's range and originality. Pricing was moderately upscale with individual courses (à la carte but usually substantial and well garnished) mostly $8-$18. Menu offers extensive vegetarian selections, as you'd expect, and a variety of roasted breads (naan) and rices as further side dishes. The menu just changed, as it does occasionally. Two post-change "appetizer" courses at the bar were delightful recently, substantial enough to appetize 2-3 people or fill one. They were the nimbu gobhi (spicy roasted cauliflower florets, exquisitely seasoned, with a sprouted lentil salad) -- a standout! ($10), and the tandoori agaaz, a "mixed grill" of tandoor grilled shrimps, chicken tikka, lamb chop ($12), on a quadrant plate with a salad in the fourth position, the meats accented by rings of tart green mint-herb sauce on the plate, more (and a red tamarind sauce) in little pitchers on the side. These went very well with a draft Sam Adams at $2 (Widmer is the other draft beer choice). $2 is the "happy-hour" beer price, 5-7PM daily, which alone should earn a visit from Jack Perkins. Busy chef Sachin Chopra kindly suggested a few of his favorites on the new menu, when asked: seabass tikka, seafood biryani, gush taba, lamb dishes in general including lamb rack, and from the appetizer menu the tuna sambhariya and the tulsi seekh kebab.
Lunch service includes a large diverse buffet with changing dishes, some familiar from other Indian restaurants, many not. An ambitious wine program seeks to pair wines with the wide-ranging dinner cuisine. I can't comment because haven't ordered wine, but one managing partner is a wine fanatic and knows her stuff, and I've seen some well-chosen labels.
Visually Sakoon is striking. Entering, past a host desk and large curved bar, the cavernous dining room you see is just half the restaurant, or less. Actually there are four dining rooms, counting the upstairs "lounge" over the bar. I didn't realize in the first few visits (until a call of nature prompted a tour) that Sakoon extends deep into the block, twice the length of the front room. In the middle, the kitchen occupies most of the width, booth seating filling the rest (off the corridor to left of the kitchen, marble walkway lighted from below). Further back are a smaller dining room, a few very modern bathrooms, and stairs to offices.
The only complaints were one or two trivial service gaffes at lunch. (Stett Holbrook, silicon valley's refreshingly humble food critic laureate, recently praised the food and décor in his _Metro_ article, but complained about service.) I've learned why. Many servers work two such jobs and just aren't around enough for the training necessary for this unusual restaurant. Time may harmonize, as usual in such. Check this place out!
-- Max Hauser
* Castro Street itself scored a higher Michelin percentage than average, with four restaurants listed. The others are Cantankerous Fish, Cascal, and Xanh.
357 Castro St,
Mountain View, CA 94041