Table size is bistros’ dirty little — very little — secret. Google “bistro” together with “tiny tables,” and you’ll find reviewer after reviewer mentioning this feature in tones ranging from resigned to matter-of-fact, the way you might mention that skating rinks have ice. Almost no one seems to lament or complain about it — that’s the resignation — but surely no one likes it, this Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole dysmorphia in which you feel suddenly gigantic at the exact moment when you’re sitting down to consume calories. Bistro tables tend not only to be tiny but also too close together: too close, at least, for telling secrets. Reaching behind you for the coat or bag you’ve slung over your chair means nearly clouting strangers.
So let’s see: Cramped. Claustrophobic. Self-conscious. Aware of being eavesdropped on. Since all of this goes against human nature, against how we naturally have fun, you have to wonder not why it’s so standard but why we put up with it. It’s standard because every square foot counts in costly rental spaces. More tables, more turnover, more cash. And bistros tend to be in high-rent districts. (Meanwhile, most backwater dives afford enough room, as rubes used to say, in which to swing a cat.) In other words, the tiny upmarket bistro table is part of the capitalist machine and you are its oppressed victim.
But hey. Your choice. And if a suave address, soft jazz, and $180-a-bottle Gaja compensate for that canned-sardine sensation, the Aggarwals of Punjab want to challenge your assumptions about what goes with what.
“It isn’t just California food or French food that goes well with wine,” says Deepak Aggarwal, who opened the Mint Leaf a little over a month ago in the Gourmet Ghetto, in the heart of a town already rife with Indian restaurants — some of which, including Khana Peena on Solano Avenue and Dollar Curry House on Oxford Street, are operated by his relatives. Indian food can be paired with it too, he says, “especially Zinfandels and Cabernets” — although, even in India, “it is not common at all for restaurants to serve wine.”
In this same location, his family used to operate the Taste wine bar.
“We were doing organic foods, and people loved that,” Aggarwal says. But, never feeling quite comfortable with the global fusion food served at Taste, “our family finally decided to do our own thing” and reopen with an Indian menu, still focusing on locally produced and organic ingredients, including organic flour, produce, cream, eggs, chicken, and free-range lamb. At dinnertime, patrons also can choose between brown and white rice and whole-wheat and white-flour naan.
The main attraction here, greeting you like a gleaming robot as you walk through the door, is a wine machine. This Italian-made technological marvel, one of only two in the Bay Area, is a metallic column ringed with bottles from which all oxygen has been sucked out to keep their contents fresh for up to 45 days. Patrons insert wine cards to release their choices an ounce at a time at a dollar or more — sometimes much more — per ounce. Aggarwal says he sells the wine at cost. It’s part of his mission to change minds, so that bistro types will “come for the wine, stay for the food.”
Alright then, the food.
The lunch menu comprises mainly thalis: platters topped with entrées and side dishes in teacup-sized ramekins. After starting with a samosa appetizer whose too-stodgy crust evoked that of a Cornish pasty, we tried the charred-eggplant baigan bharta and the cheese-and-peas matter paneer.
Although the eggplant was pleasantly smoky and mildly spiced, the matter paneer was short on cheese cubes and very long on slightly underdone peas. We had ordered it medium spicy but found it hot. Turning to the spinach and lentil side dishes, we surprised ourselves by recoiling, bite after bite. Both were pointedly oversalted, with a throat-searingly abrasive, astringent aftertaste that we didn’t recognize from any other Indian-food experience, ever, anywhere. Water wouldn’t assuage it. Like all lunch entrées at the Mint Leaf, each of our thalis came with as much plain rice as would fill a tennis ball. That’s not enough to cushion most any Indian meal, much less a weirdly astringent one. Unremarkable naan bread, included in the thali price, raised the carbo count a bit. But one doesn’t like having to search feverishly for starchy substances to vanquish the taste of what one is paying to eat. Especially when one’s table is so small that every gesture feels exaggerated, as if one was dining in a child’s playhouse — albeit a brick-walled playhouse with exposed pipes snaking across its ceiling.
We returned on another night for dinner.
Peggy liked the karahi chicken very much, declaring the tender walnut-sized breast-meat chunks in ginger-onion-tomato sauce “bold, clear, and complex, seasoned beautifully” with coriander seed, cumin, and fennel. And the fried cheese-vegetable balls in the malai kofta — one of several nightly specials listed on the chalkboard — were savory-smooth. But although we had ordered the malai kofta mild, it wasn’t. Its silky tomato sauce put up a ferocious fight. The abrasive astringency in the side dishes was back as well, or had never left, and darn if any of us could put a finger on what caused it, although imperfectly integrated spices were a possible culprit.
Mercy comes from funny places. And what could be less wine-bar-ish, less bistroesque, than a cherry-coconut naan? Dessert naan is popular in India, less so abroad. This one was sprightly and sunny, chewy if not-quite-sufficiently pillowy, stuffed with sweet coconut flecks and fat maraschino-style fruit that stood out like big polka dots against the pale bread.
Come for the wine, stay for this. But keep your secrets to yourself, because that guy at the next table is almost certainly listening.