5253 Mission Oaks Blvd., Camarillo
Restaurants are about food, but they’re also about the people who run them. The Curry Leaf, which has been open for three months now, is a unique Indian restaurant in Camarillo. It sits in an unassuming location in a shopping center and is run by the same family that owns Spice Avenue in Santa Barbara. The restaurant offers an extensive selection of delicious Indian food, but also the charm of its owner, Sandy Pujji. He is ever-present in the restaurant, greeting customers, serving food and interacting with little children as they dine with their parents.
The interior of the Curry Leaf is crisp, clean and simple. Tan walls with wood wainscoting, and white tablecloths topped with squares of brown butcher paper make it feel hip but not pretentious. The quiet yet vibrant Indian music, nice lighting, and the spotless rectangular, white dinner plates set in front of diners add to the quietly classy vibe.
As we dove into the menu, the number of tantalizing options was overwhelming. We started with an order of the curiously named chicken lollipops. The meat on these little chicken winglets is trimmed in such a way that the bone looks like a lollipop stick. They are arranged in a circle around a dish of bright red, spicy sauce, making for a dramatic presentation indicative of the good taste to come. They were delicious — crisply fried on the outside and tender on the inside.
Mulligatawny soup is one of my benchmark items — I always order it when going out for Indian, as a gauge of how good the restaurant’s food really is. When I took my first bite at the Curry Leaf, all I could utter was, “Wow….” The tang of the lemon, the hint of sweetness of the apple, the smoothness of the lentils, and the kick from the curry, spices and cilantro made this the best mulligatawny I’ve ever had.
A variety of breads is offered, including naan and rhoti. The basil naan was crisp, but lacking in the buttery goodness usually associated with naan. The kulcha, bread stuffed with onion and cilantro, offered a nice contrast to the naan because it was thicker and denser, yet it was a bit heavy on the raw onion flavor.
The entrees are all served piping hot in the little copper pots that are unique to Indian restaurants. The malai kofta are vegetable dumplings, traditionally made of potatoes and small amounts of nuts, raisins and spices. They are deep fried and then served in a creamy and slightly sweet sauce, complete with small chunks of pineapple and onion. Flecked with color when cut into, they have a wonderful texture and the perfect consistency. The beef korma, one of the chef’s specials, is served in a similar sauce. The cubes of beef are perfectly tender and soft, and infused with the flavors of coriander, turmeric and ginger.
The lamb saag, large chunks of tender boneless lamb in a thick, dark and spicy spinach sauce with onion and tomatoes, is another winner. The spiciness of this dish was the perfect complement to the sweetness of our other selections.
When it came time to order our drinks, Sandy recommended the India Special from the selection of Indian beers. This light, Indian microbrew was the perfect accompaniment to the hot and spicy foods we were lapping up. Rice is not included with the entrees, so we had to quickly order some when our entrees arrived. Not to worry, the waitress brought it quickly.
After dipping every last bit of bread into every sauce on the table, we were full, but still curious about dessert. We were offered the gulab jaman — milk balls described as “little Indian doughnuts in syrup.” Yet we sadly declined because we had simply run out of room. Sensing our disappointment, Sandy sent us two anyway, just so we could experience this little delicacy. They are like hot, spongy doughnut holes, resting in a tiny bowl of syrup made from butter, sugar and cardamon.
Reminiscent of the sweet spiciness of a good cup of chai tea, they were the perfect ending to a wonderful meal. Though the Curry Leaf is small, it offers a big menu full of flavors. This is a great neighborhood restaurant with exceptional worldly food — the kind of place where, when you leave, you are pleasantly stuffed and feel as though you just made a new friend.