BY PETE TITTL
In this tough economy, rent can make or break a restaurant.
Take CafÃ© Desi, which opened a couple of years ago on Panama Lane near the big Costco store. It was impressive, and we said so when it opened, but the owner said it was just too difficult to cover the rent. So he eventually relocated his kitchen to a former pizza parlor on Wilson Road, just east of the intersection with Wible, where the rent was slashed to nearly a quarter of what he once paid. And with the change of scenery comes a new name: Cafe India Indian Cuisine.
One wonders if his old customers know of the new location, as there were only two other tables filled when we visited on a weekday night. It's a shame because, based on our experiences, this is one of those hidden gems among local restaurants, a place so impressive that when my companion walked out she exclaimed, "Who wouldn't like Indian food?" That's the kind of impression it made on her.
It wasn't the atmosphere that won her over. Though they have some nice color schemes and window treatments to make it seem more India than chain pizza parlor, it has a pretty ordinary ambience. We were seated in a booth made of wood, and when the customer behind me got up and down during his dining experience, it pretty much shook my seat. That was annoying.
I would not say that about any of the food we tried: the lentil soup ($4.95), two items off the list of chef's specials -- the butter chicken ($12.95) and the CafÃ© India Special ($12.95) -- the paratha ($2.95) and the onion kulcha ($2.95), both off the list of tandoori breads.
Let's start with the butter chicken. It's made with chopped chunks of tandoori chicken, a traditional yogurt-marinated baked chicken that almost everyone loves, but it can be too simple. Here it's graced with a sauce of butter, tomatoes and curry, all served in a bowl. Irresistible on the white aromatic rice.
The CafÃ© India Special was a vegetarian dish (they have 11 others on the menu) made from broccoli, potatoes, mushrooms, cauliflower, carrots, onions and tiny bits of red and green pepper, all in a brown sauce that will remind you of great Chinese food. My only complaint was I found the potatoes undercooked, but overall this huge platter of vegetables was again a perfect companion for the rice.
The breads were also impressive. Paratha is a whole wheat bread that is layered before cooking, so it looks like phyllo dough when it's presented at the table. Excellent with the chicken or by itself. The onion kulcha was a fermented dough naan stuffed with moist, seasoned and minced onions, like a thin turnover. For carnivores, there is an extensive selection of lamb.
There are a lot of paneer dishes on the menu, too. Paneer is an unaged, unsalted cheese that is popular with vegetarians in India. In fact this restaurant might have the most vegetarian-diverse menu in Bakersfield, with items like cashew corn curry ($12.95) on the menu.
You see the Northern India influence on the menu in appetizers like Paneer finger pakora ($7.95, deep fried cheese) or samosas ($3.95, pastries stuffed with peas and mashed potatoes) as well as mutter paneer (a peas-cheese-curry gravy concoction).
The waiter said the restaurant may be on the move in the future if it can find a reasonably priced space close to Haggin Oaks, The Marketplace or Riverwalk. In the meantime, old customers of Desi CafÃ© can find the same quality food on Wilson Road.