Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Clay Pit

1601 Guadalupe St
Austin, TX 78701
(512) 322-5131

Whenever you want to celebrate a family birthday, several different restaurants pop into my head, The Oasis – for the fabulous view (but the marginal food), Fogo de Chao – for an all you can eat meat orgy, Aquarelle – for the special someone in your life, or my personal favorite Roy’s. The first place that doesn’t pop into my head is Clay Pit, but that’s where my brother wanted to go for his birthday so that’s where we went.

Firstly, Clay Pit in an interesting location, in that there’s nothing around it. It’s a lone, isolated haven of ethnic food in an urban sea of hotels and sidewalks. Which is why its always so surprising that parking is so awful. They only have one small lot that is ALWAYS full. Don’t even try parking there. Park one street to the west on San Antonio and walk over, you’ll save yourself a headache. Secondly, this haven of ethnic food is located in a Texas historic building. The building, called the Bertram building after its first proprietor was built around 1880 as a grocery store, saloon and general store. It is really a perfect example of central Texas limestone pioneer architecture. According to this (http://www.whatwasthen.com/bertram.html) historic website, apparently there was a tunnel going from the basement of the building to a brothel next door. Business would purchase access to the tunnel so as not to be seen entering and leaving said brothel. Apparently its haunted to wooo ooo (pretend those are scary ghost noises).

I’ve been to the Clay Pit on several occasions and feel sufficiently warranted to review its many virtues. This particular time, we had a large party so we made reservations in advance. Yes, they do take reservations, and you’ll want to use them. I’ve waited as long as an hour and a half to eat there. However, their follow through of the reservations left a little to be desired. We had made reservations for 11 and when we were seated (very promptly I might add), we noticed that there were only 10 settings. And the 10 settings they had placed were squished together around 3 square (4 person) tables. When we questioned them, they put another plate down in the corner of an already crowded table. Let me draw a diagram to demonstrate how awful the arrangement was:

X______ X

My brother’s friend Linda – a take charge kind of woman – put on her bitch face and went to have words with the manager. Five minutes later, we were whisked upstairs to the large party room (where we should have been in the first place) where two large tables were set for us. Much better.

Once we were settled, we proceeded to order wine and 3 different types of the naan bread, the garlic and basil naan, the 3 cheese naan, and the peshwari naan (with nuts raisins and cherries). All three were soft and luscious exampled of unleavened bread. The readl star was the peshwari naan. Stuffed with a nut and cherry paste, it managed to be sweet and savory in that wonderful way only Indian food can achieve. It reminded me of a cherry breakfast kringle from up north (a large, flat, filled pastry normally seen in southern Wisconsin). We all passed the naan around family style and were so impressed with it that we ordered another round after it had been eaten. The 6 baskets was more than enough to satisfy the appetizer cravings of 11 people.

For entrees, instead of going strictly family style, as you would in most Indian restaurants, we all opted for our own main dish. Between the 11 of us, we had a fair coverage of the whole menu. Tandoori chicken, the malai kebab, lamb vindaloo, coconut curry, korma curry, and tika masala are the ones I remember off the top of my head. And I have to say for once in my life, I was equally impressed with all the entrees. We passed them around so we could all get a taste of each so I did try a little of all of them. The korma is one of my personal favorites, but it was rivaled in creamy goodness by the regular coconut curry. It was a slightly flatter version of the korma, but would be wonderful comfort food and a good dish for someone unfamiliar with the delights of Indian food. The korma on the other hand, is a more complex coconut curry with the nuanced flavors of almond and pistachio with the bitter and pungent punch of what I think is coriander seed. The tika masala at Clay Pit is equally wonderful. A richly creamy tomato curry sauce with tender pieces of lamb and vegetables (I always order with extra veggies). The vindaloos arrived in a small pot and were stewed to perfection. A perfect blend of lamb, onions, bell peppers & potatoes in a tangy tamarind sauce.

The grilled entrees, though in my opinion not as good as the curries, all had lovely flavor. The tandoori chicken was a bright color but came out slightly dry. A childhood friend of mine was Indian. Her mom used to make us wonderfully tender and rich tandoori chicken for dinner from time to time. It would literally fall off the bone it was so tender and moist. The Clay Pit tandoori chicken was not the wonderful example of Indian food of my childhood, but it still had a nice flavor.

The desserts were as masterfully executed as the entrees. Linda ordered Gulab Jalman – essentially sugary rosewater soaked doughy balls. I LOVE dessert. Its my favorite part of eating, but even this was too sweet for my tastes. Not my favorite but I think an acquired taste. I ordered the Kheer. I was expecting a rice pudding, but what I received was more a rice cereal. Rice covered with a thick sweet milk with almonds and a spicy cinnamon flavor. Very nice, but not a pudding. Zach ordered the chocolate layer cake. This wasn’t my favorite dessert either, a slightly dry cake with a little too much raspberry flavoring. But then I’m not a huge fan of the chocolate and raspberry pairing. My favorite dessert was definitely the Kulfi. Rich, frozen, creamy and sweet medallions of pistachio greatness. If you go here, you have to save room for it. It’s the perfect way to top off an evening of spicy food.

Overall, I was quite impressed with the quality of the food at Clay Pit. The ingredients were fresh and the recipes were executed in a way pleasurable to my western palate. If you’re not familiar with Indian food, Clay Pit is a great stepping off point to familiarize yourself with (northern) Indian cuisine. I consider it a PF Chang’s of Indian food. Great quality and Americanized.

Bottom Line: PF Changs of Indian Food

Mariah – 9.5