Carla Meyer

Dining review: Monsoon has made big strides in its Indian fare

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

Great midtown Sacramento location. Nicely appointed room. Modern and urban. Cool bar. Excellent hours. Good service.

And the food, so lacking in the weeks after it opened in December, is trending upward.

For a restaurant that seemed on its way to an early and unceremonious demise, Monsoon has gained traction by looking seriously at its shortcomings and taking the right steps to get better.

The use of spices on several dishes, so crucial to Indian cooking, had been abrupt and clunky in the early going. Now the seasoning is more balanced and complex.

Meats that were chewy and dry are now tender and juicy. And the naan, which was so dreadful when we tried it early on, is better, too – fresher, fluffier, tastier – though there's still room for improvement.

New restaurants like to say they are a work in progress, but that's little comfort to the consumer who is asked to pay full price for the training-wheels experience. The training wheels are off, Monsoon is developing a personality, its kitchen is getting more consistent and confident, and the overall outlook is much improved since Monsoon's appearance in our "First Impressions" column in late January. We remember the little pools of grease in the curries as if they were yesterday's.

Thanks to Monsoon's owners, cooking like that is yesterday's news. The food is not yet stunning or stellar, but it often is good, sometimes very good and good enough often enough for us to have hope.

For lunch on a recent weekday, three of us shared three entrees with ample amounts of rice. We were impressed with two of the three. The butter chicken was tender and the thick, creamy tomato sauce had lively peppery notes we enjoyed. The prawns were nicely cooked – firm yet tender – in a coconut and chili masala. The masala lime lamb had the most potential, with a range of seasonings that brought depth to the flavors, but the lamb was too dry and tough.

Lunch can be speedy and efficient, which is good news for office workers nearby. On this occasion, our server was excellent. She knew the food, was adept at describing the flavors, paid attention to our needs and had a friendly, informal charisma that made us appreciate the experience.

For dinner one weeknight, we chose an outdoor table, eager to soak up the energy on one of the busiest areas for foot traffic. It's only getting busier, with the recent opening of nearby Firestone Public House, which has become an instant hit. Also nearby are Mikuni, PF Chang's, Sapporo, Petra's, de Vere's and Mix.

All of our dinner selections showed skillful cooking, though the vegetable pakoras were significantly less flavorful and peppery than what we had at lunch, suggesting some inconsistencies in the kitchen. These Indian-style fritters also were lukewarm.

Our favorite dish that night came out of the traditional tandoor clay oven. This entree, called "Monsoon chicken" ($13), featured exceptionally tender cubes of marinated chicken, cooked perfectly at high heat and featuring just enough exotic flavor and aroma.

The sauce for the beef madras ($14) featured more of the same smooth, creamy texture found on several other dishes, this time with lively notes of heat on the finish, thanks to the melding of coconut with red chili. The beef, however, was chewy and sometimes just tough, and paled especially compared with the excellent chicken. On this night, we ordered both the traditional basmati rice and an order of brown rice, a healthy option with hints of nuttiness.

Monsoon is doing many things to win over visitors, including a full bar with friendly bartenders mixing a nice variety of drinks. On Fridays and Saturdays, the bar and restaurant are open until 2 a.m., with a more limited food menu. It's a clear signal that Monsoon wants to be a contender in the heart of midtown nightlife.

Monsoon also has started delivering food. Since we live within walking distance, we tried delivery and found it to be fast and efficient ($3 delivery charge). Indian cooking is one of the great cuisines for takeout (and for leftovers).

All this, and yet it's still too soon to tell if this attractive Indian restaurant with the friendly vibe, urban sophistication and can-do attitude is going to out-point the competition – the more casual Mati's up 16th, Bombay on 21st Street with the superior kitchen and bustling vibe, and the consistent and somewhat appealing Katmandu on Broadway.

The cooking here has gotten better, but it must continue along that path in the months to come if this restaurant and bar hopes to stand out as a destination for superior Indian cuisine.

Monsoon Cuisine of India

1020 16th St., Sacramento

(916) 469-9999

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Full bar: Yes

Vegetarian-friendly: Yes

Takeout: Yes (and delivery)

Noise level: Moderate

Overall three stars (good)

With its cooking on the rise, Monsoon has shown significant improvement. Its overall rating elevates thanks to the location, ambience, service, hours and all the little things that make for a pleasant experience.

Food two 1/2 stars (pretty good)

This category is trending upward significantly compared with its early weeks last winter. Recommended dishes include butter chicken, "Monsoon chicken" and salmon tikka (both from the tandoor oven), and for vegetarians, the baugan bhartha. Soups could be improved. Nice selection of mostly California wines, along with good choices of mixed drinks.

Service two 1/2 stars (pretty good)

We had one very good server who knew the menu and was adept at describing the food with enthusiasm. Our other servers were fine.

Ambience three 1/2 stars (very good)

The location is right in the heart of all the nightlife excitement in midtown, and the room has been remodeled into a stylish, sophisticated urban setting.

Value three stars (good)

All but one lunch item is under $10. Dinner entrees range from $12 to $15. Indian food is great for sharing – i.e. three or four selections for two people, with rice and naan. Tip: Go to the website (under "menus") for the buy one/get one free coupons.