August 16-22, 2006

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First Bite


By David Sason

When I walked under Avatar's inconspicuous blue banner, all I could smell was curry. This is fine. I like Indian food, and Avatar's is technically an Indian restaurant, after all. But the interior décor immediately transcended the limits of the sensory point of reference, especially the diner-style, kitchen-side counter. This, along with the wall's black-and-white National Geographic-type photographs of Indians, hinted at the sort of East-meets-West hybrid in which Avatar's "Marindian" cuisine specializes--a potent, scrumptious fusion of Indian, Mexican, Italian and American dishes.

We were immediately greeted by the jovial owner, Ashok, who seated us at a table in the narrow back section. He promptly asked if we'd eaten there before, and when we told him we hadn't, his warm, gigantic smile actually seemed to grow. Ashok explained his "ethnic confusion" philosophy (conceived by Avatar, his late brother-in-law), which starts with an Indian food base but adds whatever patrons desire.

As we browsed the menu, we enjoyed the delicious, butter-cooked paratha, whole wheat bread with olive oil made, like all other dishes, from scratch. Featuring too many interesting choices, with everything from lamb to pasta to tostadas to burgers, the menu made it difficult to order in a timely manner.

Sensing (and expecting) our indecision, Ashok returned armed with a smile and a helpful plan. "Why don't you tell me what you guys like and we'll make a dish accordingly," he suggested. This opened another Pandora's box, so we hastily decided to start with the jumbo prawns ($9.50). "Medium plus," he told the kitchen staff after we discussed my tolerance for spices. Graced with a delicious light curry sauce, featuring just enough garlic, ginger and capers, these shrimp quickly found themselves swimming in our stomachs.

The culinary fusion shined brightest on our main courses, the Dungeness crab Punjabi enchilada ($15.95), with a light pumpkin and yogurt sauce, and curried tender chicken breast Punjabi tostada ($6.25), with white meat pieces topping whole wheat bread. With such a mixture of different tastes and spices, most astounding was how the two dishes complemented each other rather than competed.

With substance over novelty proven, we opted for Avatar's Creation ($5.95) for dessert. "You can get ice cream anywhere," Ashok said, agreeing with our choice. Comprising condensed-milk Indian ice cream and Italian gelato, the pistachio-topped slice exceeded my expectations. Ashok's accounts of past customers calling it "the best thing they ever had" didn't seem that ridiculous, as we nearly licked the plate clean of the unbelievable mango purée sauce. Although to cynics Ashok's enthusiasm may recall a used-car dealer, his delight in his family operation is truly genuine. I thought my obvious note-taking was the reason for the wonderful, prompt service until I saw spied him at every other table, relishing the success of his generous recommendations.

After sipping a cup of minty homemade chai, with its exhilarating blend of clove, ginger and fennel, I left satisfied but still lively. I felt envious of the surrounding office building employees who get the chance to eat fresh, fast and truly original food for lunch each day. I also wondered how Avatar's soups up a plain old hamburger. I'll find out next time, I guess.

Avatar's, 2656 Bridgeway, Sausalito. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday. 415.332.8083.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.