There’s a framed review from Esquire magazine outside Junnoon’s front door. The review names the restaurant as one of the Top 20 new restaurants in America. It’s from 2006. That’s almost five years ago. The review is starting to look a little sun-bleached and is curling at the corners.
The aging review is telling. While the food at Junnoon can still be quite good, the restaurant appears to be resting on its laurels. Five years is a long time ago. What have you done for me lately, Junnoon? Checking back in at the restaurant four years after my first review, some of the spark seems to have dimmed.
When Junnoon opened in 2006, it was part of a new class of modern Indian restaurants, like nearby Mantra and Amber India, that were taking the cuisine out of the all-you-can eat buffet line and into a white-tablecloth setting with contemporary renditions of classic Indian food and beautiful presentations. The interior of the restaurant with its earthly colors and intimate, loungelike vibe announced it as an upscale, new-generation Indian restaurant.
Professional service is a weakness at most Silicon Valley restaurants, and that’s the case here, too. While friendly and prompt, servers don’t bring much enthusiasm or knowledge to the table. In one case I had to ask to see a dessert menu instead of being offered one after my meal. And then it was fished from the server’s back pocket, wrinkled and oil stained.
On two occasions, dishes were served without silverware. I stared at my food and waited for her to come back so I could eat. Why not bring out plates of food and silverware at the same time? After making a selection from the cocktail menu, I was informed the bar doesn’t serve that drink anymore and that I was looking at an old menu because a new one hadn’t been printed up.
On their own, these are little things, but add them up and I started to see a trend: sloppiness. That wouldn’t matter if the food were great. In some cases, the food at Junnoon is quite good. The Old Delhi–style chicken ($19) is a great version of what is essentially chicken tikka masala, only it has a smoky flavor enlivened with fenugreek. Good, too, is the tandoor-grilled halibut paired with a thick coconut-ginger sauce. The pasty lump of semolina did nothing for the dish, though.
I loved the Bombay crab and cod cakes ($8) from my first visit. The little fritters are light and pan-fried and sprinkled with cumin and onion seeds. The spicy garlic and chile chutney served with them is good, too. And don’t miss the semolina shells ($6), Junnoon’s take on chaat, Bombay street snacks. This one is made from a little shell of wheat flour and filled with garbanzo beans and the classic sauces, tamarind and mint chutney and a drizzle of yogurt. They’re served cool and really ignite your appetite.
I think my favorite dish was a side, the spinach dal ($5), cumin and garlic–seasoned lentils with an appealing smoky finish to them.
Other dishes, like the overly creamy, underseasoned cauliflower and ginger soup ($8) and wan Darjeeling steamed wontons ($8), left me flat. Where was the Darjeeling flavor? The rogan gosh ($20) and the paneer and red pepper cake ($15) were good, but not worth their price. Similar versions that sell for considerably less are available elsewhere.
Desserts are OK. The menu leans more toward the West than India.
A restaurant is like a garden. It starts to wither unless it’s nurtured with constant watering, replanting and weeding. Junnoon is still a good restaurant, but it needs some more love and attention to keep it thriving.