For the folks who profess their love of all cuisines, Kanishka’s Neo-Indian Gastropub would be a real treat. Not everyone likes Indian food, but this is not entirely typical Indian food. The owner/chef is heavily inspired by her grandfather’s Bengali recipes with a few servings of her travels through all hemispheres. Her menu is filled with ingredients that combine flavors from all lands where she’s stepped foot, bridging India to all of them like a global network of small plates. Dining here is an experience to take your taste buds on a trip around the world through the perspective of one cuisine in one sitting.
We began our dinner with the Brussel sprouts, flash-fried and seasoned with “Chef’Spices” and served with lemon curry aioli. Blanching before frying helped cook the bitterness out, allowing so many other flavors to shine. They were seasoned with a mild curry and cumin spice blend, and while the outer leafs gained so much of the savory flavor, towards the center the sprouts retained an al dente texture with natural vegetable flavor. It was a fine balance of fresh and savory, crunch and cooked. A creamy aioli with light lemon flavor and a bit of curry was vital, not just a hastily added condiment; the sprouts, while tasty, were better with it.
The Street Side Duets was really more of a three-in-one small plate with typical Indian street snacks, or chaat, a term referring to savory snacks sold from stalls or carts. The five pastry-looking puchkas are also known as pani-puri, consisting of a hollowed pastry fried and then filled. These were much like the standard found throughout India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The pastry cups were so surprisingly thin, yet sturdy enough to contain the semi-smooth potato and chickpea filling with mild curries and the heat of a chili pepper. The sweet tamarind glaze helped balance the heat, but it was far from the hottest item on the plate. From the silver bowl we enjoyed bhel puri, kind of like an Indian Chex Mix made with puffed rice, a few peanuts, a small amount of fresh cucumber, and a tamarind sauce. It was spiced, but not spicy. Zach didn’t like it at first bite, but the second and third and so forth kept getting tastier, like a consuming addiction (part of the comparison to Chex Mix). To appreciate it more, we would recommend eating it slowly because it is an experience for the mouth to feel in contrast to what the eye sees. Despite looking like having a cracker texture, it was almost salad-like with a mix of crispy and chewy. The tamarind cilantro shooter itself was not so bad, but the shot glass was rimmed with a tamarind chili pepper dust and that was a real kick to the tongue. It can be used as a sauce to drizzle over the plate with the puchkas, but we took it down like resilient older Indian women tend to do, according to our server Lindsay. The small plate was nowhere near lacking flavor.
The papas bravas were strikingly similar to what August has tasted in Spain, but decidedly different here at Kanishka’s. Large-diced potatoes were tossed with Indian spices as well paprika, served in a pool of tomato fenugreek cream sauce that tasted essentially like a curry ketchup. The same lemon curry aioli as the Brussel sprouts proved to be just as integral here as it was for the sprouts, adding a layer of flavor that made this memorable.
Just have to say, what came out to us what not what we expected when we ordered “warm seafood salad (fresh catch & shrimp), zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, avocado, butter lettuce, devilish egg, Chef’s tangy dressing” but that’s okay because it was still tasty. The eye tells us so much about what we eat, but we become so accustomed to certain standards of plating that “seafood salad” would probably not be dreamed of like this by too many people at all. The fresh catch was mahi mahi, and three large bites of it plus three shrimp sat in the hollowed-out half of an avocado skin. The fish was lightly seasoned; sometimes simplicity is delicious when the ingredient can stand alone in its purity. The shrimp had a little extra flavor to it, a touch spiced but not overwhelmingly. The squash and carrot salad had a latent heat from the tangy tamarind dressing, so August was thankful for the avocado half to keep her tongue cooled from this and the other spicy components of the dinner.
The tandoori-tini was creative in its plating, that’s certain. Made with tandoori BBQ chicken thigh meat, the same paprika potatoes as the papas bravas, spicy pico de gallo, and Indian spices, it was the type of dish a small eater would fill up on easily. The spoonful of classic Mexican guacamole was not listed on the menu, unless that’s the pico de gallo, as it did have lots of fresh tomatoes and onions. A garnish of pickled onion offered a bit of tanginess to break up the hearty “meat and potatoes” vibe this gives off. But, we didn’t realize that this was going to be almost identical to the papas bravas so we recommend that you choose one over the other.
To our delight, as we are lovers of this not-too-popular meat, there were more than one lamb dish on the menu. We went for the sliders as the lamb was from local Superior Farms of Dixon; lamb is tasty (barring mutton), but the closer to home is better and this dish was another tally in the column of evidence. Patrons can choose between Indian flatbread and eggless bread but the owner recommended the wrap style with flatbread so of course we took her suggestion. With arugula, chutney, aioli, and onion straws, the crunchy wrap with a tortilla-like texture enveloped the crispy onion straws and fresh greens, creating excellent layers of texture. Simple flavors and few ingredients make for a great dish.
With such a menu to take a culinary trip around the world, it would be foolish not to return. Being that the restaurant is still young, there is room for adjustments to be made. We did try an additional dish not featured here, because we learned that it will be axed soon so we would hate to lure you here under false pretenses. The menu, though, is nearly a piece of art for all its details and subtle references. There are main categories for the different types of small plates (vegetarian, seafood, land-based meat, etc), each with a corresponding song title that ties in to the theme in some puzzlingly metaphorical way. For each item there are thoughtful beer and wine pairing suggestions, but like our honest server Lindsay pointed out, most people that order more than one item wouldn’t necessarily care to have a dedicated drink for each. It is nice to have the options; if August still worked in downtown Walnut Creek like she did for a year after college, she would make this her lunch break stop on the regular, a plate a day with a little something to sip it down. If you were to take just one of our recommendations, though, let it be this: make a reservation, but be prepared that you still might wait for your table anyway. Kanishka’s is the cool kid at school and everyone wants to hang out with her.
Butternut squash is in season, and this is a delicious way to bring it to the dinner table as a side. It would also make for a great week’s worth of lunches at work, if you’re able to hold back from eating more than a serving at once. Bring it to a pot luck, and it’ll disappear quickly. And if you’re alright with butter, then it’s vegetarian, too!
1/2 of a large butternut squash
1/2 of a 1 lb. box of orzo
2 cups of baby arugula
3 tbs. of butter, divided in 1 tbs. and 2 tbs.
3 tbs. of salt
3 tbs. of shredded Parmesan cheese
2 tbs. of chiffonade sage leafs
2 tsp. of peeled and chopped garlic
1/2 tsp. of freshly ground nutmeg
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Peel and deseed the butternut squash. Chop into 3/4″-1″ pieces. Melt 1 tbs. of butter and toss together the butternut squash, sage, and nutmeg in the butter. Transfer to a baking dish, cover with foil, and roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes until soft and tender but not mushy.
Boil a large pot of water with the salt. Cook the orzo according to package directions. Strain the pasta, and while the pasta is draining in the sink, return the pot to the stove over medium-high heat, and add the remaining 2 tbs. of butter and garlic. Cook the garlic in the pot for 1 minute – the goal is to soften the garlic, not brown it. Add the orzo back to the pot and toss in the butter and garlic. Fold in the Parmesan, arugula, and butternut squash, and serve.
Mondays are the toughest night to find a restaurant open for dinner. It’s even tougher for those with special diets, like vegan or gluten-free. Any diner, special diet or not, can rest easier knowing there is a delicious Mexican restaurant in the East Bay that caters to all clientele – AND it’s open on Monday nights! Picante in Berkeley is open seven days a week with extended hours on the weekends for brunch, so you’re bienvenido no matter what day it is.
August was recently working with some of her students on compound words, and manchamanteles is one of them. It’s a style of meat called “tablecloth stainer” because the sauce of the chicken will surely make the linens dingy. The tostada salad can come meatless and even gluten-free if you request it without the tostadas, even though it would no longer be a tostada salad if you didn’t have the fried tortillas; without the meat and tostadas, though, it would be one of the healthiest, most nutrient-packed items on the menu. We love our vegetarian friends, but for ourselves, we had to try the special manchamanteles. The sauce is made with a grilled pineapple red mole, so there was a deep earthiness from the array of chiles used, plus a mild sweetness from the caramelization of the pineapple. Chunky pico de gallo had its own tomato-based tangy acidity, and the cabbage also was faintly sweet. All together, those three elements on the sweet side fooled the palate into thinking it was a lighter meal than it really was. In reality, it was super filling and beyond satisfying. Fresh, crunchy greens, locally made Mexican-style cheese, and stewed and lightly spiced black beans completed this salad. There was enough going on that we didn’t need the dressing, but it added a delightfully fresh bite.
Ordering is done at the counter before you seat yourself, and we asked our cashier lady what she would recommend. August had already been eying the sopa de mariscos, so when the cashier said it was good, that finalized our decision. There was a little bit of heat, but it wasn’t uncomfortable (although it may be for the timid). At least the heat didn’t travel past the mouth, making our faces flush or throats burn. Beyond the heat, it was a very rich broth with intense seafood flavor, tangy tomato, and a slight buttery quality. Hunks of tender rockfish swam with lots of clams, mussels, and prawns, and it was a pleasant surprise that all the shellfish was very clean as well as fresh – prepared well, there was no hidden sand to grind our teeth. That would be an unwanted texture, while the carrots, onions, celery, and potatoes were cooked just right so that they retained a touch of their natural textures. With the fog coating this part of the Bay tonight, it was a wonderful way to warm up.
While ordering at the counter, we chanced an encounter with the manager, who offered us samples of different meats. They all tasted great, but the pork chile verde was one of the most impressive. It must have been intuition that that was the third item we ordered, before trying the meat samples. The pork was fork tender, almost to the point of melting in your mouth. Its sauce was made with tomatillo and Anaheim chile, marrying the flavors with the perfect balance to enhance the meat without overtaking the plate. On the side came rice cooked with tomato, garlic, onion, and mild spices, and Zach called it “spot on with flavors.” The pinto beans were both salty and smoky; the flavors were basic, but extremely well done for what they were. Between the beans, rice, and pork sauce, this dish required the use of tortillas for sopping. One of Picante’s claims to fame is their corn tortillas – GMO-free corn is used daily to make masa for the restaurant’s housemade tortillas.
The GMO-free corn goes into the tortillas as well as chips and masa for other dishes, so eat those corn-based items without worry. For diners who appreciate in-house, scratch cooking, this restaurant will meet or exceed your expectations. If you really love the food, catering is available for your next fiesta. Picante nos place and we bet you’ll be pleased, too.