DINE In a nondescript space on Lombard Street — itself one of the more nondescript of the city’s thoroughfares, a faded remnant of 1950s automotive delirium — a succession of south Asian restaurants has come and gone over the past decade or so. The latest arrival is Viva Goa, which opened late last summer and, as the name reveals, features the cooking of Goa, a region on India’s west coast south of Mumbai where once there was a colony of Portuguese.
The best-known contribution of Goa to the world’s experience of Indian food is almost certainly vindaloo, a spicy sauce of garlic, chilis, and vinegar — vinegar being derived from wine and wine pointing in the direction of the Portuguese. The Portuguese also, according to actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, “introduced chiles to India” — having brought them from their New World colonies — “in the late 15th century. Indians, already familiar with their own black pepper, took to them with a passion.” Jaffrey’s recent book, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey (Knopf, $35, 320 pages) is a trove of straightforward recipes, many of them Goan, that rely on a few readily available ingredients to produce stunning results. If you have space on your shelves for only one Indian cookbook, let it be this one.
Viva Goa offers vindaloo in a number of guises, along with dishes that tend to turn up in Indian restaurants of every stripe, including saag paneer ($8.99), ground spinach mixed with spices and cooked with cubes of fresh white cheese. Due to a circumstance beyond my control, this old standby seems to get ordered every time I find myself in an Indian restaurant, and, despite the utter predictability of the pattern, it never disappoints — and didn’t here.
Viva Goa’s vindaloos are made with ginger, garlic, potatoes, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, black peppercorns, chilies, and vinegar, along with some form of flesh — beef, pork, lamb, chicken, shrimp — or no flesh. Lamb ($10.99) was fine, though the distinctive gaminess of the meat vanished in the fragrant blaze of the sauce. The sauce had a reddish thickness I would have guessed was the result of stewed or reduced tomatoes, but the menu made no mention of tomatoes. So perhaps this effect was achieved through some combination of the vinegar, chilies, and potato.
Although most of the Goan recipes in Madhur Jaffrey’s book are rich in chili peppers, black peppercorns, cayenne, turmeric, and ginger, the evidence flowing from Viva Goa’s kitchen suggests that Goan cuisine has a mild-mannered side too. A nice example would be the vegetable caldin ($8.99), with bits of broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, and zucchini stewed in coconut milk with coriander, turmeric, garlic, and cumin seeds. The coconut milk brought an element of buffering creaminess, and although the seasonings were formidable, it was as if someone had discreetly dimmed some harsh overhead lighting.
And at least one item from the menu is neither spicy nor mild: the chicken cafreal ($11.99), a half-bird slathered with a pesto-looking sauce of fresh cilantro and green chilies then simmered in a pot. No complaints about the meat, which was juicy and tender, but the coating did not quite convince. Because the bird wasn’t cooked in the tandoor, the enveloping sauce neither reduced itself to a glaze nor firmed up into a crust or shell. Instead, it remained gloppy, like slowly melting spring snow. It wasn’t quite as satisfying as tandoori chicken ($10.99), but, with its African heritage, it was different enough to justify a place on the menu.
Did I say Madhur Jaffrey’s recipes rely on easily-got ingredients? They do, with one exception: fresh curry leaves. These are not easy to find (she recommends basil or kaffir lime leaves as substitutes), but they somehow turned up in Viva Goa’s malabar jinga ($7.99), an arrangement of shelled, sautéed prawns napped with a spicy red sauce that looked like caponata but with a much stronger kick, aromatic and exotic.
To round out the proceedings, starch-wise, are many of the usual suspects, from basmati rice to naan ($1.99, made with whole-wheat flour) and paratha ($2.50, basically buttered naan). There are also (for $1.50) fine pappadum. These would be excellent for cleaning up any leftover sauce, except they lose so much of their magic when cool. Luckily, they’re almost sure to be gone long before then.
Dinner: nightly, 5–10 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sun., noon–3 p.m.
2420 Lombard, SF
Beer and wine