Neela Paniz was describing a recent visitor to her Napa restaurant, an Indian man who had just returned from his native land. “He was so excited,” she said. “He said to me, ‘India is changing.’
“I was so glad,” she added, “because that is what I have always been about.” Combining dishes from the rich traditions of India, from home cooking to the days of the British Raj, and tweaking them with innovation has always been what has put Paniz on the culinary stage.
Paniz moved from Los Angeles to Napa and opened her restaurant on Clinton Street two years ago. Since then, not only has she been following her own mission of creating fresh and light interpretations of Indian cuisine, but she has also been evolving her menu to reflect her Napa neighbors as she gets to know them.
Paniz, originally from India, learned to cook by watching Julia Child cooking shows when she was studying banking in Southern California. She melded Child’s classic techniques with dishes she learned from the family chef back in India, and egged on by her friends and family, opened the highly successful Bombay Café in Los Angeles. After scoring a hit with her cookbook, “Bombay Café,” she became one of the recognized faces of the new Indian cuisine.
“When I came to Napa,” Paniz said, “I wanted to open a very elegant, high-end Indian restaurant, featuring contemporary Indian dishes.”
She quickly learned that many Napans, rejoicing to have an Indian restaurant in Napa, were anticipating menus and prices similar to those at the Indian restaurants they’d come to know in university towns like Davis or Berkeley. “I found more and more people asking for traditional items. I went back to a menu more like the Bombay Café.”
Since then, she has been adjusting her menu to add traditional favorites diners want, while still keeping to her vision of creating food from this swiftly changing nation.
“I still have dishes on my menu that you won’t find in any other restaurant,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of my appetizers come from my childhood, from my own home, family recipes.”
Among these — she ticked them off on her menu — are Lasoon Jhinga, shrimp with garlic green chilis and mustard seeds ($14), and Baignan Deva, sautéed eggplant layered with fennel-based tomato conserve and garlic-infused yogurt ($8).
At the same time, she is now offering popular Tandoori specialties like chicken and lamb kebabs — Tandoori chicken is half a chicken marinated with yogurt, ginger, garlic and coriander — and curries featuring fish, shrimp, lamb and chicken ($14 to $22), served with basmati rice.
She’s created a range of small plates that range in price from $5 to $12, like the popular Kathi Rolls (Tandoori chicken, mint chutney and marinated onions wrapped in egg-washed rotis, $8).
Some dishes, she said, are purely her own creation, like the Chicken Tandoori Salad ($15). To everything, however, she gives an Indian flourish — this chicken salad includes paneer (an Indian cheese) and is tossed with a cumin-cilantro dressing.
One of the most appealing aspects of Indian cuisine is its ability to transform mundane, if not bland ingredients — like cauliflower — into something exotic and flavorful and, above all, appealing.
While many daily items on her menu are vegetarian, Paniz has also begun creating a three-course, prix fixe vegetarian menu she serves on Wednesday nights for $25.
This is a changing menu, she explained, “based on what I find in the market.” On a recent visit, her vegetarian special began with Aloo Palak Pakoras, potato slices and spinach leaves in a chickpea batter, served with a peanut chutney.
For a second course, she created a traditional thali, a sampler of dishes, all served in little silver dishes surrounding a mound of chawal (basmati rice with black cumin seeds) on a round silver platter. On this evening the selections included Naval Kol Paneer Rasedar, a light tomato curry with kohlrabi and Indian cheese; Khate Mithe Baingan, sweet and sour Indian eggplant; Karhai Bhindi, okra, onions, mustard seeds and kari leaves; chapatis, the traditional whole grain griddle flatbread; Kela Raita, a banana-yogurt relish; and Makkai ka Salaat, a mixture of corn, green chilis and coconut.
A thalis, she said, is created for contrasts in texture and color as well as spices and flavor.
Dessert was fresh strawberries and blackberries, dusted with Indian brown sugar, and served with a dipping sauce of yogurt lightly seasoned with cardamon and saffron.
“This is the Indian style,” Paniz explained. “We naturally go to fruit for a daily dessert. It’s when you want to be festive that you go to the fancier desserts.”
While she uses traditional Indian produce, like okra, when she can find it, she said many nontraditional vegetables, like asparagus, lend themselves easily to Indian spices.
“Butternut squash is another,” she said. “It is not Indian inherently, but it has a flavor profile that lends itself to Indian spices.” An easy way to give an Indian flourish to a butternut squash, she said, is to toss minced ginger, minced green chili and toasted cumin together and add it to a baking squash when it is “one-half or three-fourths of the way done. Not too early, because the spices could burn. Wait until it is about five or six minutes from being done.”
Paniz has also started serving a line of new dishes for Saturday lunches, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., including the Tandoori salad and Chili Cheese Toast. An “age-old Indian dish that goes back to the days of the English Raj,” it’s grated sharp cheddar cheese mixed with tomatoes, cilantro, onions and green chilis, served on toast points and gratinéed.
She’s also serving a dosa, “a South Indian crepe made from rice and lentil–fermented batter.” Traditionally, she said, it’s stuffed with tumeric-seasoned potatoes, but she fills hers with Laura Chenel goat cheese.
Another Saturday dish is her Indian lamb burger. “You have the traditional — a bun, lettuce and tomato,” she said, “but the lamb is marinated and spiced, served with green chili pickles and pickled onions. Of course, you have to have fries, but I add spices — spicy Indian fries.”
“The ideas keep coming,” she said. “My goal is to use my Saturday lunches to entice those who are skeptical about Indian food to at least give it a try, to give them a taste of it and perhaps they will come back for more traditional foods.”
To become even more familiar with Indian foods, she also recommends visiting an Indian grocery store — her own favorite is Amar Grocery on West Texas Avenue in Fairfield. “Go see the spices and the mangos. No one can choose a mango like an Indian.”
As for cooking Indian dishes at home, she said, “take a class or find a good cookbook. Don’t buy curry powder from a typical grocery store. Go to an Indian grocery store.”
But whether you sample dishes at Neela’s or prepare them at home, she said, “Try it once. You may be surprised.”
Saffron and Cardamom–Scented Yogurt Sauce
In the state of Gujerat, they serve a strained yogurt called Shrikhand. This adaptation of the recipe is a simple accompaniment to fresh berries instead of whipped cream. The addition of punjabi shakkar, or brown sugar, is an added bonus.
2 cups yogurt, homemade or store-bought
1/4 tsp. saffron threads
1/4 tsp. green cardamom seeds, freshly ground
3-4 Tbsp. sugar
2-3 Tbsp. punjabi shakkar (can substitute golden brown sugar)
Place a strainer on top of a bowl. Drape either thin muslin cloth or cheesecloth that has been folded four times into the bowl of the strainer. Place the yogurt on the cloth and set aside to strain the whey out for at least 8 hours, or overnight in the refrigerator.
Using a spatula, remove the strained yogurt into a small bowl. Discard the whey. Whisk the saffron, cardamom and sugar into the strained yogurt. Add more sugar if desired. Set aside for at least an hour in the refrigerator to infuse all the flavors.
Serve with your choice of berries or other fruit, such as mangos. Sprinkle generously with the punjabi shakkar.
Sweet and Sour Eggplant Khate Mithe Baingan
The Indian eggplants are available in Indian markets and sometimes at specialty grocery stores. They resemble baby eggplants but are actually fully mature and have a sweetness all their own. Small Japanese eggplants may be substituted.
2 pounds (about 12 to 18) egg-shaped Indian or Japanese eggplants
2 medium tomatoes
2 Tbsp. ground coriander
1 1/2 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. cayenne
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 1/2 tsp. amchur (ground green mango powder)
1 1/4 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 green Serrano chilis, each sliced lengthwise into four pieces
1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled and cut into thin “matchsticks”
Fresh chopped cilantro for garnish
Trim off the tough end of the eggplant stems, leaving the caps intact. Make a crosswise slit halfway through the eggplants from the blossom end. Soak them in water to cover with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt for at least half an hour to open the slits and remove any bitterness.
Cut the tomatoes in half and rub the cut halves against the coarsest blade of a grater, set over a bowl, until only the skin remains. Discard the skin and set the pulp and juices aside.
In a bowl, mix all the spices, along with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt.
Drain the eggplants in a colander. Working over the bowl containing the spice mixture, pry open the slits with your fingers. Put about 1/2 teaspoon of the spice mixture into each eggplant, letting any excess fall into the spice bowl, and push the slit closed to distribute the spices evenly.
Using a large skillet, heat the oil over high heat and add the chilis and ginger, along with any remaining spice mixture. Add the eggplants, reducing the heat to medium, and turn them to brown as evenly as possible.
Add the tomato pulp and remaining salt. Mix well and cover, reducing heat to low. Cook 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the eggplants. They should be fork-tender when pierced, but remain intact.
Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately.