Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine Restaurant Review April 2012
Neela’s Contemporary Indian Dining
By Dorothy and John Salmon
On a lovely spring-like, winter day, Dorothy had lunch with Annie Bennett and Margrit Mondavi at Neela’s in downtown Napa. We know a great lunch when we experience it and we thought our lunch at Neela’s was terrific. We were greeted by Shelly Shipman, our lovely server and, later, as we were enjoying our lunch, Neela Paniz, the owner, stopped by to say hello. Neela’s is located on Clinton Street in downtown Napa in an area that is destined to blossom as one more cool neighborhood of tasting rooms, restaurants and interesting retail.
Neela’s seats 70 guests in an open setting with an Indian flair, and very interesting Indian food. As we sat down for lunch, we remarked as to how this area of town had changed and would continue to change in the coming months, as the former Goodwill site would become something very new and, probably, hip. We think that will attract more interesting businesses to the neighborhood. How lucky we are that Napa is thriving!
Neela’s newest next door neighbor is the New Tech Network of schools. The Network now serves 86 schools in 16 states with more coming online in 2013, thanks to the vision, courage and tenacity of many community leaders, teachers, principals and hard-working administrators who made the very first New Tech High School a success. Napa’s New Tech High is yet another example of Napa’s innovative nature and ability to influence the rest of the country. Nearby to Neela’s is more of Napa’s emerging food and wine scene with Stonehedge and the 1313 Main Street Tasting Rooms across the street.
Our lunch was filled with good conversation, memories and plans for our next trip together, all complemented by a great glass of Vinoce Sauvignon Blanc. The Vinoce winery is located right here in Napa on Vallejo and Yajome. The Nuss family is wonderful and were dining at Neela’s while were there. Neela’s carries their Twenty Rows Cabernet Sauvignon too.
Our plates of Neela’s wonderful Indian food made the lunch a great way to spend time with good friends. Margrit and Annie ordered the Vegetarian Sampler ($16) with Vegetable Samosas (potatoes and pea turnovers with sweet tomato chutney), Bhajjias (chickpea flour and mixed vegetable fritters, with tamarind chutney), Sev Puri (Potatoes, onions and contrasting chutneys on a crispy, wheat cracker) and Karari Bhindi (crispy fried okra that was amazing). We all agreed that the Karari Bhindi was better and more interesting than any potato chip we had ever eaten.
Dorothy recalled her visit to India with John, when she wore what she knew as a bindi on her forehead. Neela’s Bhindi was VERY different, an interesting dish, and delicious, oblong, small, fried and fabulous! Dorothy ordered the Non-Vegetarian Sampler ($19) which included Unday Ki Chutney (deviled eggs, yogurt, mustard seeds, chilies and Kari leaves), Kathi Rolls (tandoori chicken tikka, mint chutney with marinated onions). The Kathi Roll was kind of an Indian version of a rolled chicken taco. The Non-Vegetarian lunch also included Rassols (curried lamb and potato croquettes and pumpkin-tomato chutney) and Shrimp Samosas (shrimp, potatoes and mango pickle turnovers).
Neela’s features interesting dishes from many different Indian provinces, made from fresh ingredients and matched with colorful Bollywood music videos at the bar. Neela’s is a hopping place at night! If you dine at Neela’s on Wednesday night, you can choose to experience a three course, vegetarian, tasting menu. On Thursday night, you are served a selection of stuffed flat breads, served with salads and raita (cucumber & yogurt relish). We are so fortunate to have so many great restaurants in Napa with a wide variety of cuisines to choose from.
When you want to serve unique, delicious fresh food and you don’t want to make it yourself, Neela’s also offers catering for that special party. Let Neela do the hard work for you and you can enjoy your party. For the vegans and vegetarians in the family, Neela’s is an easy and wonderful answer.
You can order wine from Neela’s Wine List or bring your own for a $15 corkage fee. Our Vinoce Sauvignon Blanc was wonderful. Neela Paniz is not new to the food scene. Neela’s was named as one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100, Best Bay Area Restaurants in 2010, featured in 2009 in Wine Spectator’s Chef Talk, featured locally in the Napa Valley Register, Paul Franson’s NapaLife, the Los Angeles Magazine in 1994 when Neela was in LA, and in the Press Democrat. Neela Paniz is usually at the restaurant to greet guests and enchant them with her passion, terrific food and unique restaurant. Her book, The Bombay café, published in 1998, put her on the national map as one of the leading voices of contemporary Indian cuisine. Neela chose to sell her partnership in Los Angeles and move to Napa with her husband, and opened Neela’s in 2008. Neela Paniz continues to be the guest chef at cooking schools nationally. On December 13, 2011, Neela was featured on the TV show “Chopped.” She won the competition. Her many fans seem fascinated by that fact and continue to come into the restaurant, excited to try the food from a “Chopped Champion.”
Stop by and enjoy!
975 Clinton Street (Near Main Street) in downtown Napa
Tuesday thru Friday
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
This recipe, called “Bassar,” hails from Sindh, formerly the northwestern province of India, now in Pakistan. Loosely translated, it means “with lots of onions.” This is a basic Bassar sauce recipe and it is finished with shrimp. It can also be served with a mélange of mushrooms or tofu, or filets of fish, or even some breast of chicken strips, or a combination thereof.
Serve it with Basmati rice or Indian flatbreads. Interestingly enough, it also does very well as a sauce for pasta or on a slice of crusty bread. You can increase the number of Serrano chilis to the degree of heat desired.
Shrimp Bassar Serves 6
For the Bassar Sauce:
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 yellow onions, sliced thin
2 inch piece ginger, peeled and julienned
2-3 Serrano green chilis, halved and then sliced thin on the bias
2 large tomato, halved and then sliced thin
1 ½ tablespoons ground coriander
½ to ¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
30 large shrimp, cleaned and deveined, leave the tails on or off, your preference
Chopped cilantro for garnish
1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add the cumin seeds and fry till they sizzle.
2. Add the onions, ginger and chilis and sauté on medium heat till the onions are wilted and lightly browned.
3. Add the tomatoes, coriander, cayenne and turmeric. Sauté for a minute or so to incorporate the spices. Add ½ teaspoon of salt, mix well and simmer covered for 15 minutes.
4. In another larger skillet, heat the other 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the shrimp and balance of the salt. Sauté on medium high heat till they are lightly browned.
5. Add the “Bassar” sauce and stir well to mix in the sautéed shrimp. If you desire a little more “curry” sauce, add about a quarter of a cup of water. Cover and cook on low heat for about 2-3 minutes till the shrimp are cooked through. Serve garnished with cilantro.