Christopher Columbus inadvertently discovered America while searching for trade routes to the East. Anyone who has sampled the pleasures of Indian cuisine can understand how spices from Asia might lure explorers halfway around the world and change the course of history. What is harder to understand is how it has taken so long for Indian restaurants to show up in this area.
Six months ago, Ishrat Ali opened Yasmeen's to make up for a shortage of Indian restaurants between Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara. It looks as though the risks that he took in opening his first restaurant have paid off.
The restaurant is a mixture of formality and fantasy. A trickling fountain and giant glass display case filled with art objects give the foyer a museum-like quality. The big open, dining area, which is refreshingly well-lit, is done in shades of rose. Paisley tablecloths, golden utensils, flowered bone china and pink lily napkin holders and glassware etched with tiny flowers help create this fantasy-and-fable effect. Indian music completes the mood.
At one end of the restaurant, behind a wall of glass, a chef works over the giant tandoors, or ovens. Watching him lowering huge skewers of red-spice-coated pieces of chicken into the ovens, or skillfully manipulating paratha dough into fabulous flaky bread is one of the perks of this restaurant.
The food is characteristic of Northern Indian cuisine, famous for the feasts of its Mogul emperors and home of the tandoor, a mesquite-burning clay oven that gets so hot that cooking is practically instantaneous.
Chicken tikka --boneless chunks of meat, slightly tangy from marinade and cooked in the tandoor--was delicious. It came with slices of strong sweet onions, barely sauteed. Be sure to try the tandoori breads--either the paratha that is made with whole wheat or the nan made with white flour. Garlic nan ($2.50) was subtly flavored with bits of garlic and parsley that had been seared to crispness.
Vegetable korma ($7.95) came with a mixture of vegetables in a nutty, mild sauce. Lamb birvani was also sweet and nutty, a rice dish with pieces of well-cooked lamb along with raisins, cashews and almonds. Chicken saag wala consisted of pieces of chicken enveloped in a spinach sauce that had the consistency of a souffle and contained whole crushed cardamom pods. It was wonderful.
Rice pilau was a simple dish of basmati rice (very long grained), flavored with cinnamon, whole cloves and other sweet spices.
Even the drinks were novel and delectable. A mango shake was neither thick nor ice cold, but it was light and refreshing. A yogurt drink, lassi , was sweet, slightly thick and perfect with hot food. Not that the food here was particularly hot--unless you use too much of the hot green chutney, a terrific condiment made from fresh mint, cilantro, onion and green chilies. It was perfectly complemented by a sweet chutney made from tamarind fruit.
I preferred dinner here to lunch. It seemed more festive and the food was better prepared. For the most part, the flavors at Yasmeen's are milder and sweeter than the hot-on-hot of some Indian restaurants. The food seems more homey than exotic. But the dishes are distinct enough that each new bite of food first complements then surpasses the previous bite.
One good test of an ethnic restaurant is to see if it is attracting its own kind. Every time I've been to Yasmeen's I've seen Indian patrons there too. And no wonder. This is a place that provides an affordable, authentic Indian dinner in an elegant setting with first-rate service.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Yasmeen's, 2311 N. Oxnard Blvd., (805) 485-3804. Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday 12 noon-10 p.m. Wine and beer, parking lot, all major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only $25-$60.