Fine and fiery dining
Akbar Cuisine of India offers an elegant atmosphere and a fabulous menu
By Erica Wayne 02/28/2013
When you’ve been subjected to ridicule for as long as I have, you get used to it. For instance, the terms asbestos-mouth and fire-eater never fazed me. But when my former editor once referred to me in print as “one woman who would welcome a hot flash,” I must confess that I began to have doubts.
Perhaps I was simply getting old, my taste buds losing their edge (if that’s what taste buds have). Maybe my denigration of most ethnic restaurants for bland, sell-out preparations was merely a sign of increasing age and decreasing ability to sense the subtle nuances of these cuisines.
But in 1998, I regained my confidence. It wasn’t therapy or RRA (Restaurant Reviewers Anonymous) that brought me back to full force, but the opening of Akbar Cuisine of India, one restaurant that knows what spicy food is supposed to taste like and isn’t afraid to serve it up — with proper warning, of course.
Unlike other menus, with their asterisks, stars and capital SPICY descriptors, when you order an item that’s rated 5 out of 5 on Akbar’s “chili meter,” you definitely won’t be calling for Tabasco. And the 4s aren’t slouches, either. I’m glad they haven’t dumbed down their recipes for wimpy Pasadena diners. There are plenty of 1s, 2s and 3s for them on the menu.
From the menu, a creation of Master Chef Avinach Kapoor, you might want to skip the usual appetizer favorites (samosas $5.50 and onion bhaji $6.95). Although these are excellent, you might want to try instead a couple of more inventive starters, such as the chicken kati roll ($6.95), or spicy chicken wings ($6.95). Even more exotic are gosht kachori (crisp flour pockets stuffed with spiced minced lamb and served with homemade plum chutney — $9.95) and machhli kabob (wild salmon cakes spiced with carom and served with mango chutney — $10.95).
The kati roll is fantastic. It’s described as roti (whole wheat bread) stuffed with highly spiced diced chicken and onions (3 on the “chili meter”). Its filling is complex and so satisfying that we order it on every visit. Almost as compelling are the salmon and lamb starters. And, as for the wings (rated 5, but to me a perfect 10), they easily beat the best buffalos to have ever tingled my tongue.
Among the main dishes we favor are bhartha (roasted eggplant with onion, tomatoes and peas — $9.95), chicken Akbari (with cashew/saffron sauce — $12.95), lamb saag (with spinach and ginger — $13.50), prawn Madras (curry with coconut and chili — $15.95) and lamb vindaloo (with potatoes in a tomato-based sauce — $13.50). The first two are rated an unintimidating 1, lamb saag is a 2, the prawn and lamb dishes are 4s. We usually order some green herb nan (white bread seasoned with mint, cilantro and basil — $3.50). And, if we’re feeling particularly decadent, we have cheese nan (cream, cheddar and parmesan — $4.50) as an extra starter.
The bhartha’s excellent. So is the creamy chicken, touted on the menu as the best in town. And the prawn Madras has one of the few shrimp curries I’ve had where the seafood was tender. Akbar’s pepper lamb (in a creamy, green peppercorn and saffron sauce, rated a daunting 5 — $13.50) may be the hottest Indian dish I’ve ever tasted. Oddly, it’s not my favorite, lacking complexity. It also requires extra rice and raita (a soothing yogurt concoction — $3.50) to tame it down. The milder lamb saag is more to my liking.
For dessert (all $6), forego Akbar’s standard kheer, kulfi and gulab jamun and instead splurge on mango cheesecake. It’s a bright orange creation whose texture is almost like creamed cottage cheese, with a light graham cracker crust and a pool of fruit puree. Equally good is the mango surprise (a pastry wrap stuffed with frozen mango and chocolate) and the crepes stuffed with dark and white chocolate gelato with berries.
Akbar occupies the northwest corner space on the ground level of the parking structure at North Fair Oaks Avenue and Union Street, and you can’t guess the elegant character of Akbar from a quick drive-by. The walls are antique cream with dark wood accents. Tables are draped in white linen, and napkins are also made of cloth. Painted scenes of Indian mythology (Krishna’s blue) decorate the walls, and there’s a great view of the passing crowds (pedestrian and automobile) from the large plate glass windows along two walls. Sitting in the comfort of Akbar, listening to jazz and classical CDs, we always find it hard to leave this upscale and inventive restaurant and are always pleased to return.
Cuisine of India
44 N. Fair Oaks Ave.,
Beer and wine/