Ambrosia Indian Cuisine in Petaluma serves health-conscious dishes with bold flavors
This last year’s dining trend might be called “dichotomy.” On one hand, pandemic stress has had many of us consoling ourselves with luscious, artery-clogging comfort food like fried chicken, loaded pizzas and monster burgers draped in cheese and bacon.
On the other hand, more of us have become acutely aware of our health and the importance of a nutritious diet. That has meant many of us are eating a lot more fresh and local produce, lean proteins, plant-based dishes and good-for-us fats like avocado, nuts and seeds.
To that list of healing ingredients, Petaluma restaurateurs and brothers Harish Chowdhary and Kamal Chowdhary would like to add spices and herbs. The brothers opened their new Ambrosia Indian Cuisine during the COVID-19 ramp-up last year and quickly gained a following for their wise message: seasonings add another layer of healthiness to recipes, while boosting beautiful flavors.
“If you know more about spices, it is really interesting how they actually affect your body,” said Harish, who imports staples from India including turmeric, fenugreek leaves, star anise, clove, red chiles and cassia bark. “Our grandfather was an Ayurvedic doctor, and we learned a lot of great things from him that we use in our cooking. For example, turmeric is one of the best spices, with antioxidants that prevent heart disease and arthritis.”
Indeed, Ambrosia’s lead chef Kamal offers many thoughtful recipes on his expansive menu, which showcases — alongside the classics — numerous vegan and vegetarian dishes. Contemporary, deeply seasoned choices include a vegetable stir-fry brightened with pickled spices ($15); Chilean sea bass in aromatic Kerala coconut milk curry ($32) and ginger root-smoked paprika lamb stewed with tomatoes, garlic and a splash of cabernet sauvignon ($24).
Dishes also can be cooked with nut creams instead of dairy, and 90% of the restaurant’s recipes are gluten-free.
Traditional dishes remain popular — the bestselling chicken tikka masala is everything it should be, with tender breast meat soaked in a vibrant, soupy sauce of tomatoes, rich cream, onions and fenugreek ($18).
But then there is the more unexpected grilled vegetables platter, a festive toss of al dente broccoli, cauliflower, potato and bell peppers tumbled with sweet apple, pineapple, paneer, a rainbow of mild spices and a drizzle of tangy sour cream ($18).
Calling their concept “progressive Indian cuisine,” the Chowdhary brothers clearly enjoy adding little twists to their fare, inspired by their growing up in the bountiful food shed that is the Bay Area. Once Kamal knew he wanted to be a chef, he returned to the family’s homeland of India to earn his culinary degree, focused on the northern region’s specialties.
That means one starter, avocado bhel, is a pretty, molded mound of velvety avocado and crispy rice puffs laced with sweet-tart chutneys ($9). I like it with a side of crispy-delicate papadum lentil crackers for dipping and swirling the chutneys into every bite ($3). Another appealing appetizer, the Malbar Coast-style prawns, get a quick sauté with plenty of garlic, mustard seeds and coconut milk ($13), while a side of olive naan adds a Mediterranean touch with its green olives, dry red pepper and olive oil topping ($4).
For entrees, the Northern Indian murgh makhani hits the comfort spot with roasted pulled chicken in savory butter-tomato chile and creamy almond-cashew curries ($18). The thick sauce gets its silkiness and a slight sweetness from the nut cream, and that sweetness may not be for everyone. I did like it best when I scooped in fragrant basmati rice for an earthier flavor ($3).
The kitchen creates a different style of chana lamb as well, veering from the more typical stew. Here, three petite chops are marinated with ginger, herbs and a flurry of spices, grilled and then smothered in whole, seasoned chickpeas, cooked soft ($24). It’s an eat-with-your-fingers affair, and I used slabs of Kashmiri naan as a utensil, enjoying the bread’s dots of mixed dried fruits and nuts complementing the mild lamb flavor ($5).
On the vegan side, the chef presents plenty of fresh veggies and more of those spices. Bhindi masala ($15) brings out fried (rather than sautéed) okra, simply paired with caramelized onions, fennel seeds and amchoor (dried mango powder). The light fry offers pleasing crunch and is nice dunked with a side of spiced roti ($4).
The vegan meals have plenty of fans, enough that Harish hopes to expand the once-a-month special of a vegan sampler platter into a regular item when the restaurant can open beyond its current eat-outdoors-in-a-tent arrangement. The large wooden board is a like a personal buffet delivered to the table, laden with individual portions of some half-dozen entrees, plus breads, rice, colorful salads and chutneys.
In the meantime, I’m very happy with the daily changing bento box, offered 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For $18, we get mixed salad, an appetizer, two vegetarian entrees, another meat or veggie entree of our choice, plain naan, rice and dessert. It’s an ample feast, and we can even customize to our desired spice level.
Certainly the Chowdhary brothers didn’t plan to open during a pandemic, but they had signed the lease in 2019 for their space in the former Mike’s at the Crossroads burger location on Petaluma Boulevard North at Payran Street.
The timing brought a double whammy. After opening their first restaurant Taj Grill in Vallejo in 2014, they planned to expand to a larger market, explore more contemporary fusion recipes and host events like belly dancing and live music.
“I was 24 years old, and my brother was 20 when we opened Taj,” Harish said. “That restaurant was our baby, but sadly we have to let it go because of pandemic. Oh man, COVID just hit us really badly because we signed the Ambrosia lease and we were renovating the space. But we didn’t have any other option besides to open, because we still have to pay the bills no matter what. I am really thankful for the community who has come out and helped us survive.”
The men’s father, Sudershan Kumar, once owned two restaurants in San Francisco. Though he’s retired now, he jumped in to help, too.
The team is optimistic this new year will be good, for diners wanting to try something different with healthy, but soul-satisfying, dishes spiked with lots of spices.
“Most of my close friends live in Sonoma County, and whenever I visited them, they always took me out to Petaluma,” Harish said. “I always wondered why. Then I realized that Petaluma is a foodie town, but they didn’t have anything like us in town. So we filled the gap.”
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.