Star of India

Every once in a while in the journalism business, the audience that we scribes serve so faithfully returns the favor. In my case, that means I occasionally get a hot tip from an SN&R reader eager to turn me on to Sacramento’s latest, greatest restaurant. The most recent tip came sizzling in via e-mail:

“I’m writing to recommend that you visit and review a new Indian restaurant in town. … A friend and I ate there last night and thought it was the best Indian food in Sacramento, and perhaps the best we’d had anywhere.”

Over the years, I’ve grown wary of such hyperbole. Hadn’t someone once told me about a great Indian restaurant in Sacramento … and hadn’t they been dead wrong? The creepy feeling that this had all happened before stayed with me all the way to the door of Jag’s India House Restaurant, tucked away on 18th Street, just off Broadway. The sign in the window said “open,” but the interior was nearly pitch-black, with just a few employees silhouetted against a white slash of kitchen lighting and no customers. As my dining companion and I entered the darkened establishment, Jag himself explained that only half the building’s power was on due to an electrical blackout, but through the twin miracles of candlelight and extension cords, he was open for business.

A tall East Indian man with an elegant English accent, Jag told us this was the fifth or sixth (he’d lost count) Indian restaurant he’d opened during his lifetime. His previous effort was in Santa Barbara; after that success, he’d decided to move on to Sacramento, opening his latest venture in late September. Normally, I might wait a little longer before reviewing a new restaurant, giving it some time to develop its cuisine, staff and clientele. But, every so often, I run into a place that inspires me to throw out the usual rules. Jag’s is one of those places. It’s changed the way I think about Indian food, and it may do the same for you.

My previous experiences with Indian food have been pleasant, but not very notable. There are many competent Indian establishments in Northern California, and I’ve eaten at more than a few of them. But despite the fact that my British friends continually rave about the curry served in their homeland, Indian food has never clicked for me in the same way that, for instance, Thai food has. Until now.

The appetizers offered the first hint that we were in for something different. Vegetable samosas, triangular pastries stuffed with a mildly-seasoned mixture of peas and potatoes and served with two varieties of house-made chutney—mango and mint—lived up to their “out of this world” billing on the menu. Onion bhaji, the Indian equivalent of onion rings, were light, crispy and equally impressive.

Traditional tandoori chicken, marinated skinless fowl grilled in a clay oven till the outside turns to something approximating the color of the surface of Mars, was outstanding. Too often, this dish is served overcooked and dried out. Our half-bird was juicy and succulent all the way through to the bone.

But the real evidence that Jag is on to something came with lamb vindaloo (the hottest of the curry dishes) and bengan bharta (a milder roasted and mashed eggplant curry). Both dishes offered complex mixtures of fresh, exotic spices rendered with a degree of sophistication that I’ve never experienced in an Indian restaurant anywhere.

By the time we received house-made kulfi, a gelato-like concoction that tasted like vanilla, almond and pistachio cookie dough (mmmm!), other customers were beginning to arrive. In particular, I noticed one woman, who was explaining to her dining companion that this was her third visit to the restaurant—not bad, considering the place has been open barely a month. I introduced myself and asked her if she had sent the e-mail about Jag’s being the best Indian restaurant in Sacramento. Sure enough, she had.

“Well,” I told her, “you were absolutely correct.”

Sometimes, this job is too easy.