From the moment you enter Gateway to India, you know you’re in for a special treat. The large pool of floating rose petals that greats you immediately gives a feeling of tranquility. Your breathing slows, and tensions of the day begin to slip away. Then the huge ornate metal statue of the multi-armed Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, transports you to the subcontinent as whiffs of curry spices fill the air.
It’s instantaneous travel without jet lag. When the thin, crisp, orange-tinged lentil bread, papadum, arrives and the hint of cumin seed awakens your palate, you can’t wait to see what other delights await on the menu. Then you may notice, as I did, that you’ve forgotten the special crunchy onion chutney the color of a bright pink sunset’s afterglow, teeming with lemon and spice. I’ve been inside less than ten minutes and all my senses are at the ready; Florida seems a distant memory.
I’m brought back to reality by the banarsi samosa, its triangular pastry crisp and bursting with softly spiced chunks of creamy potato infused with herbs and bright green garden peas. I grew to love samosas long ago, when I was befriended by a brilliant Indian couple eager to share their culture. I became a quick convert to one of the world’s great appetizers. Gateway’s version brings back floods of memory as I dip my wonderful samosa in the accompanying tamarind and mint sauces, which are delicious accents.
We also share an onion bhaaji, which is an Indian version of the onion ring. In this case, it’s finely sliced, delicately spiced with Indian herbs, then dipped in chickpea flour and deep-fried until crispy and delicious, especially since you can also mix-and-match it with the samosa sauces.
Of course, as far as I’m concerned, no Indian meal is complete without naan, the fresh-baked tandoori flatbread. Gateway offers many options to tantalize you: plain (with or without butter); freshly chopped garlic and cilantro; stuffed with finely ground raisins, pistachios and a touch of honey; lightly spiced with onions and cilantro; and “sexy naan” with fresh chopped green chilies and cilantro — in this case, sexy is synonymous with hot. The naan are light, comforting and full of flavor. There is also a variety of grilled or puffy whole-wheat breads for you to explore, including paratha, roti, and poori.
The entrées feature a wide range of Indian specialties across the heat spectrum of delicious curries. Choose from chicken, fish, or lamb with the tang of vinegary vindaloo or a creamy tomato-based tikka masala. Chicken korma has juicy breast meat simmered in a lush thick sauce spiced with cashew paste that is splendid. If you wish to skip animal protein, naram garam kofta has a similar sauce, but uses homemade cheese and vegetables to make lighter-than-air dumplings flavored with cashews, cumin, and raisins. Both the texture and the flavor combos are delightful.
Perhaps you’ll fancy an entrée lightly smoked in the tandoor oven. The tandoori shrimp is marinated in hung yogurt (which thickens as the whey drips out) combined with saffron and hand-pounded spices. The brightly colored result is juicy shellfish with a hint of smoke and flavors that enchant as they mix with the accompanying fresh mint and tangy mango chutney.
If you’re a fan of India’s aromatic basmati rice, you can’t go wrong with a biryani. This combo of perfumed nutty rice with the zip of mint and your choice of veggies, chicken, shrimp, lamb, or goat is transporting. The long-grain rice is light and fluffy and doesn’t stick together. When combined with a delicate meat (we chose lamb), the tang of yogurt and a cornucopia of spices, you’ve got a dish with memorable complexity. Add raita, a cool, refreshing touch of grated cucumber with salty yogurt, and your taste buds will be sending enough instant messages to your brain to create a social network with a Bollywood soundtrack.
Desserts feature semi-exotic ice cream flavors (mango, rose, pistachio, orange), a fried Indian cottage cheese dumpling in cardamom syrup and our ultimate choice for sharing, kheer — a silky, almost soup-like loose rice pudding infused with floral kewra syrup and topped with a sprinkling of finely chopped nuts and raisins. I’m not a big fan of rice pudding generally, but the flavors are interesting and our table makes short work of the dessert.
Gateway to India is a great addition to the Bay area restaurant scene. After years of success in Sarasota, I’m glad that Sam and Beeta Kumar and company saw fit to cross the Sunshine Skyway and bring their version of authentic Indian cuisine to the ’Burg. Unless actually viewing the Taj Mahal in person is on your bucket list, save your rupees and drive on down to Bay Pines. It’s a very fine gateway to India, indeed.