In October 1998, Surinder Pal Sroa and his wife, Linda, opened Lotus Cuisine of India in San Rafael in the red brick building on Fourth Street that some Marinites remember as a French restaurant, The Petite Auberge.
Many of us who grew up in Marin went to The Petite Auberge before prom, when our grandparents were in town, or for celebrations like birthdays and anniversaries. Potato Bear, as a friend of my parents called it. I was always enchanted by the motorized ceiling which rolls back to show a sky filled with stars, much like the ceiling I discovered years later at the elegant belle époque Parisian restaurant, Lasserre.
When I asked Sroa about the name, he said "In India, everything starts with the Lotus." The official flower of India, the lotus, represents long life, honor and good fortune. It is also a symbol of triumph since the lotus is rooted in mud but can survive to regerminate for thousands of years. Even though it grows in mud, it produces beautiful flowers. The lotus is considered to be a sacred flower, symbolizing purity of heart and mind. It occupies a unique position in the art and mythology of India.
Though I have had many wonderful meals at Lotus since 1998, this is the first occasion I have written about the restaurant. I find the full story of a how a restaurant evolved from concept to menu to daily functioning is uniquely interesting. I've had romantic dinners at Lotus, dined there with large and small groups of friends, hosted business meetings, and even enjoyed several buffet lunches by myself — an amazing bargain at $8.95.What I have always appreciated about Lotus is the absolute consistency of everything about it, from the Northern Indian menu to the courteous and gracious service to the inviting and serene ambiance.
First of all, the food is delicious. I have never had a bad dish at Lotus. Of the countless times I've ordered it, I have never noticed even a nuance of difference in my personal favorite entrée, chicken tikka masala, $12.95. No matter what else I have, I always ask for this one, and never tire of the addictively rich sauce made from cream, tomatoes, yogurt, onions and fenugreek spice, which envelopes large marinated chunks of chicken, On the occasions when I am lucky enough to leave with a small portion as leftovers, I find the sauce, even without chicken, is excellent over the biriyani rice the next day. I've even had it for breakfast.
Enterprising, driven, motivated
Over the years, I have watched with admiration as the enterprising Sroa has always seemed to be the man in charge, handling the bustle of the house, the food, the customers, the waiters, plus any problem that might arise, with great charm and patience. I have observed this man closely and have never seen him ruffled. I don't believe that "no" is part of his vocabulary.
The recipient of many awards, including Zagat for best in the North Bay since 1998, Lotus is the only Indian restaurant in the area to be included in the Michelin Guide. It is clear that much of the well-earned reputation is due to the diligence and drive of Sroa himself.
Wisely, Sroa offers partnerships to his chefs so they will feel a stake in the business and its outcome. The owner/master chef at Lotus is Purshotam who keeps the kitchen running evenly.
Sroa feels he is a father or brother figure to many of his waiters, and has a genuine interest in teaching them what service means in a restaurant. He advertises for staff in the local Indian newspapers and many come to him through word of mouth because he is known to pay better than many other establishments.
Sroa also gives back to the community, both locally and globally. For a fundraiser, school, or no profit, he will donate 20 percent of the profit to a charity.
Pink tablecloth restaurant
Sroa says he leaves the décor part to his wife, Linda, and she has created a lovely, warm and gracious environment, relaxed yet refined, with elegant touches such as the pink rose edged china, the original paintings by Vinod Patel, an artist in India, and the bronze statuary, also from India. There is always Indian music in the background and fresh flowers on every table. Everywhere you look there is a lovely painting, or bronze statue. The far wall has a beautiful mural painted a serene vista, and is graced with lotus flowers of course.
The colors of the restaurant have always reminded me of the ground spices arranged in high peaks, which you often see in outdoor markets when travelling. Rose petal pinks, tangerine to mango to saffron oranges, daffodil to golden yellows, tomato to cayenne reds and apple to leaf green. Guests seem to be equally comfortable at Lotus in jeans or sport coats. There is a dining room off to the side, available for overflow from the main room and also perfect for private parties with colorful fabric covered banquettes and pillows set along the walls of the room. This room is not an after thought, it houses equally dramatic art as does the main dining room.
Sroa doesn't believe in cutting corners. The original recipes are a combination of the flavors, texture and scents he remembers from his home in New Delhi. Some came from research into Northern Indian cuisine, and every dish passed taste tests with his chefs, friends, relatives and staff before he opened the doors of Lotus. This is a family run operation, with Sroa's nephews Amba and Satnam now in charge of Lotus in San Rafael.
The cuisine is at Lotus is Northern Indian with many items like prawns, chicken, and naan cooked in traditional tandoor clay ovens.
The chefs at Lotus make their own bread and pastries. Sroa recently began serving gluten free bread because he had many requests from customers who are allergic to wheat. The naan is really a star here, and Lotus serves 10 different varieties.
Though I usually have the onion naan, recently one of the waiters convinced me to try the pesto naan, which sounded too, well, too Italian for an Indian restaurant, and was perhaps an attempt to be trendy. Though of course when it arrived, my guests and I found it delicious.
I rarely look at the menu at Lotus, but asked to see it and found that "holy basil" is the description for this particular naan. Sroa says that basil is the most sacred herb in India.
The spices of life
In all of their restaurants, Sroa says no pre-cooked products are used, everything is done from scratch and nothing they make stays longer than two days. The dough for the naan and samosa is made fresh every morning.
Though he knows the redolent chicken tikka masala is my favorite entree, Sroa says that the chicken curry sells more. "It has nothing fatty in it, just olive oil and cumin seeds, it's very traditional with tumeric and green onion sauce. The meat is shaved rather than in chunks like chicken masala." And of course the majority of the flavor comes from the special spice mixture, garam masala.
Sroa feels that most Indian dishes in restaurants have too many spices. He prefers simple food where the spices don't overpower the main ingredient of the dish.
In Indian cuisine, everything is meant to be shared, most of the main dishes at Lotus can easily serve four people. The menu offers appetizers, soups, salads, breads, tandoori offerings, curries, chicken, prawn, fish and lamb main dishes, as well as a selection of Indian desserts. With many vegetarian, vegan and gluten free choices available to customers, it is obvious that Sroa listens to his customers. Lotus also serves hormone-free antibiotic-free chicken and lamb.
Vegetable samosas are my favorite appetizers at Lotus. Plump and triangular shaped, these are covered with a flaky pastry and absolutely bursting with potatoes and peas and seasoned with cumin, coriander, ginger and garam masal ($4.75 for two pastries).
I like to mix the tangerine colored sweet tamarind sauce with the spicy green mint sauce and use this for both the samosas and the naan. If you are a fan of chutney, be sure to ask for it as it is imported from Sroa's parents store in India.
From the tandoor oven, a must would be any of the naan breads. Some are plain, with garlic or onion, some are stuffed with ground lamb, or raisins and nuts, for $2.75 to 4.25.
I recommend the simplicity of the succulent prawns or chicken to taste the true tandoor charcoal oven flavor. Tandoori prawns, $15.95, in which jumbo prawns are first marinated and then roasted in the tandoor oven, are succulent and flavorful, and brought sizzling to the table, served over onions and peppers.
A house special is chicken curry, $13.95, which is Punjabi-style curry and gluten free. There is a ground lamb seeka kabab from the tandoor for $14.95, and you can ask for any of the curries to be mild or hot. Speaking of hot, if you are into spicy, try the chicken vindalu curry, $11.95, with potatoes and chili.
For sides, the saag paneer is a creamy spinach with housemade cheese cubes (paneer) $10.95. Aloo gobi is florets of cauliflower with potatoes and spices such as tumeric, ginger and garam masala, $10.95. The eggplant dish is another of my favorites, $10.95, called bengan bartha and the vegetable is cooked down until it is soft and velvety smooth to a melt in your mouth consistency. Of course there are lentil and chick pea dishes too. Biriyani rice, which is long-grained rice farmed at the base of the Himilayas, is fragrant and perfect as a vegetarian or side dish to stand up under the curries, but it can also be served with chicken, lamb or prawns if you order it as the main event, ranging from $12.95 to $15.95.
Lotus desserts, $3.95 to $4.25, should not be an afterthought but an adventure in flavors and delicacies with which you might not be familiar. Kulfi, the saffon ice cream, comes in a molded shape and is icy and refreshing with a nice undertone saffron, which most of us would not think of as a dessert flavor. Gulab jamun look like little doughnut holes floating in syrup but they are actually much lighter, served warm and sauced with honey. Kheer, or rice pudding, is more of a sauce consistency and quite delicious alone or with gulab jamun.
Spiced chai, $2.75, is the perfect ending to an Indian meal. Though we have not had so many warm nights this summer, Lotus still opens the ceiling on balmy evenings, sometimes during the day as well. You can cool off from the hot curries with the light breeze indoors.
Lotus has five types of Indian beers including Taj Majal and Flying Horse, $4.25 to $6.95, plus beers like Corona and Red Tail Ale. Lassi is, of course, the iced yogurt drink. With rose water it is $3.45, or $3.95 with mango.
Many people order beer with Indian food but Sroa says he serves more wine than most Indian restaurants. Perhaps because we are in Marin, but I think it is because his wine list is interesting and his prices are reasonable. There are many organic and sustainable choices on the menu.
Most of the wines come either by the glass or by the bottle. They include a selection of whites: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, and for reds pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and zinfandel, as well as several champagnes and a Moscato. Glass prices are $6.50 to $8. Most of the bottles are in the $24- to 26- range. The most expensive is $40 for Navarro pinot noir "Ancienne" from the Anderson Valley.
That Navarro pinot noir is more than a bargain, it is a gold medal winner and has lots of fruit flavors including cherry plum, and huckleberry. I have ordered this wine for myself and with friends several time, and find it the perfect balance for Indian dishes served at Lotus. Two great organic cabernets are also offered: Bonterra at $6.50 a glass, or $26 a bottle, and Coates from Humbolt County at $7.50 a glass, or $28 a bottle. The Coates merlot is wonderful too, with blackberry and chocolate flavors, at $7.50 a glass, or $28 per bottle.
Sroa he doesn't mark up wine very much because he wants his customers to enjoy his selections.
What Sroa has created is an amazing success story. With his determination, drive and perseverance, as well as the respect and loyalty he receives from his clientele, many of us in Marin County can't wait to see what he does next. As he says, in India everything starts with the Lotus.
704 Fourth Street
San Rafael, CA
Lunch: Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. t0 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 5:00 to 9:30 p.m. daily