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Inventive Indian

Sonoma's Delhi Belly rises above the typical naan-and-curry spot

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NEW DELHI The avocado chaat and lamb and cheese are two great appetizers. - FLORA TSAPOVSKY
  • Flora Tsapovsky
  • NEW DELHI The avocado chaat and lamb and cheese are two great appetizers.

Dining at a new ethnic restaurant can go either way. It may be comforting and familiar or it can take you to places you've never been before.

While true to its traditional Indian roots, Delhi Belly Indian Bistro, a new addition to Sonoma's bursting dining scene, offers a few surprises to make this anything but a typical naan-and-curry joint.

Located a few blocks from Sonoma's plaza, Delhi Belly is an upscale Indian restaurant with embroidered parasols hanging from the ceiling, a dessert wine menu and a buttoned-up, elegant ambiance.

The menu isn't as vast as most Indian restaurants and is dotted with appearances of scallops, salmon and other less common ingredients. Service is professional and the kitchen is impressively fast. In spite of its full capacity, all our food was delivered within 10 minutes.

From the appetizer list, the organic avocado chaat ($7) combines avocado, chickpeas, potatoes, pomegranate seeds and wheat crisps with yogurt and tamarind chutney. It's the exotic cousin of the all-American potato salad. Another original appetizer, simply called lamb and cheese ($9), turns out to be a dense, flavorful lamb kebab stuffed with goat cheese, battered and fried and then cut on a diagonal and served with a trio of chutneys and sauces. It's a fun, spicy take on bar food at its best. Also noteworthy is a scallops appetizer ($10) made with cumin, cilantro and lime, and topped with roasted peppers.

Inspired by the starters, we moved to the entrées. From the vegetarian section, the baingan bharta ($13) is a classic Indian dish described on the menu as "tandoor roasted eggplant with hand pounded spices, tomato and yogurt." It amounted to a gooey, spicy hot spread of eggplant and peas. The eggplant contributed its smokiness, the spices added a familiar Indian kick, and the yogurt added a wonderful richness. It's excellent, especially when eaten with the generous "assorted bread basket" ($10), chewy paratha, buttery cilantro naan and fragrant onion kulcha.

The tandoori mixed grill ($27)—made with juicy chunks of chicken, succulent rosemary-scented lamb, salmon in mint chutney and, best of all, the cardamom- and cilantro-accented murg malai chicken—is highly recommended. The dish is served on a bed of pickled red onion, a nod to the current obsession with pickling, perhaps. Less traditional entrée choices include the wild salmon marinated in yogurt, garlic, ginger, mint and other spices ($18), and the basil seekh kebab ($16), minced lamb, cheese, garlic and basil.

The dessert menu ranges further afield with the carrot pudding ($7). The dish showed up hot in a small coffee mug with condensed milk, shredded carrots and spices. It was hard to classify: an earthy, moist paste, not too rich, and impossible to stop eating.

It's a long way from the customary rice pudding we've come to expect at the end of an Indian meal. But then Delhi Belly is not your average Indian restaurant. It's a culinary destination that invites exploration off the beaten path, especially if you're willing to cheat on the curry and the tandoori with some new flavors and textures.

Delhi Belly Indian Bistro. 522 Broadway, Sonoma. 707.343.1003.

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