Pizza isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Indian food, and while it may be a thing in New York, London and even San Francisco and Oakland, it hadn’t yet made a huge splash here in the East Bay. But now with Chef Preeti Mistry making it, perhaps it will.
It’s mostly what’s for dinner at her new fast-casual spot, Navi Kitchen, which has a compact menu with big flavors.
Navi Kitchen opened in April and is the second concept from Mistry, the James Beard-nominated, “Bourdain-blessed” (not to mention former “Top Chef” contestant) chef and her wife Ann Nadeau, who has been at the helm of Juhu Beach Club in Temescal for the past four years.
The interior of Navi is a brightly colored teal and has a large counter with seats, but the main dining area is outside. There are a few tables out front, and in back, a patio that is surrounded by a condo complex. Large arrangements of mixed succulents decorate the long tables, and the patio gives off a family-friendly vibe.
Wherever you sit, orders are taken at the counter. In an effort to pay both front and the back of the house fairly, a 15% service charge is added to each bill to be distributed amongst the staff — additional tips are not accepted.
Mistry felt that an open-all-day kind of place was most needed in this neighborhood, which is what Navi is. The breakfast menu (or “Brekkie,” as they say in London, where Mistry is from originally) includes pastries from Oakland’s Starter Bakery and two sandwiches, the Mumbai Morning Burger and the Croque Gadame (each $8.45). The former has a fried egg with pork ginger sausage, American cheese, cress and ghost pepper chutney, while the latter has a fried egg with chai-spiced bacon, white cheddar, cress, pickled onions and tamarind ketchup.
The all day toasts section features two choices, the ever-popular avocado ($7) with cucumber, chaat masala and pickled onions, while the PB&C offers house-made curried peanut butter with seasonal fruit chutney. It’s worth noting that the “all-day toasts” are not served beyond 3 p.m., and brekkie stops at noon.
Since we came after 4 p.m., we were limited to the “Comforting,” “Salads,” and “Pizza” sections, but that still left us with some choices, though it should be noted that those avoiding gluten would pretty much be limited to the soup and salads here.
To drink, Temescal Brewing is the beer on tap here, and there are a few bottles of wine to choose from, as well as cocktails with vermouth and lower alcohol spirits as there’s no liquor license. Non-alcohol beverages of note include a seasonal lassi ($6.50); Nimbu Pani, a potent cilantro lemonade ($4), a fresh turmeric root tonic ($4) and the Darjeeling Limited ($4), which is basically an Arnold Palmer.
We started with the Green Goddess Salad ($6/$11) which we loved, with its little gem lettuce, mixed radishes and chives in a light dressing. The very presence of glistening thinly-sliced watermelon radishes that curl just so, with bits of chives and their blossoms clinging to them, automatically turns this salad into Instagram-worthy food porn.
Forgoing the “Solidarity Soup” ($8, with $1 going to Bay Area Black Lives Matter) and calzone ($14.25, with $1 going to Planting Justice), we choose the Tikka Masala Mac & Cheese ($12, with $1 going to Destiny Arts) from the “Comforting” section.
It’s worth saying here that I am one of those strange creatures whose feelings about mac and cheese make me feel out of step with the rest of humanity, or at least the American swath of it. I can take it or leave it, and the only occasions I ever eat it is when I’m with others who have ordered it. I usually find the usual mac too bland, rich and one-note for my palate to want more than one bite. So I was surprised that the tikka masala version greatly appealed to me, especially when served with some of the house-made hot sauce mixed in ($1).
Navi serves its mac and cheese with toast points rather than the traditional bread crumbs, which gives the dish even more crunch. While this mac — made with a mix of white cheddar and gouda — was as rich as the traditional, the hot sauce took the already unusual flavor to a new level for us. The Indian spices combined with something so familiar made it almost addictive. As my palate tried to make sense of the flavors, I kept going back for more.
Several years ago, Mistry said she joked about making a mac and cheese with a tikka masala sauce; then she got serious and decided to try it. She said using locally-made Baia pasta for the dish made all the difference.
“We tried it with elbow macaroni, but it’s really hard to get the texture right and cook it consistently, where it doesn’t get mushy and fall apart,” she said. “Plus, using a product made in Oakland is even cooler.”
Now onto the pizzas. There are four to choose from, some of which will change with the seasons. We tried both the Kheema Kale, with lamb and beef tomato sauce, lacinato kale and red onion ($22), and the Love Veggie, with eggplant, marinated paneer, cherry tomatoes and tomato sauce ($19.50). It’s worth noting that two out of the four pizzas can be made vegan.
We found that the crust of both pies — not super-thin, like much of Bay Area pizza — to be very much to our liking, with an excellent chew and flavor. Mistry is going for an “Indian-Neapolitan” approach, and it made sense that the crust would be similar in puffiness to naan.
When Mistry first moved to the Mission district of San Francisco from the Midwest, she ate a lot of Indian pizza from Zante Pizza and Indian Cuisine, and fell in love with it.
“When I moved here in ‘96, I was immediately taken with it,” she said. “I was in my early twenties, and it was a pretty value-driven meal, so my friends and I would order it all the time. For birthday parties, we’d get it and bring it to a bar.”
While Zante’s pizzas have a crust reminiscent of Papa John’s or Dominoes, Mistry wanted to bring a more Bay Area sensibility to her crust, and use organic toppings from local farms.
“I wanted to combine that love of a Neapolitan-style with Indian flavors,” she said.
The flavors were great, but we had just a couple of structural issues with Mistry’s pizzas; there was an excessive amount of moisture pooling up in the center of both pies. In the case of the Love Veggie, we suspected it was the eggplant and raw tomatoes, emitting liquid in the high-temperature oven, and with the Kheema, it was probably runoff from the meat sauce.
And in both cases, the slices were so weighed down by ingredients, that even with the thicker crust, toppings slid off onto the pan, and whole slices did not make it to the plate intact.
Once we got beyond this (and used a knife and fork to eat the pizza, which might not fly in some quarters) we found the flavor combinations to be both inventive and delicious. The onions on the Kheema pizza, for example, are not only pickled but spiced, an especially thoughtful way to cut through the heaviness, since this pizza is rather like a sloppy Joe.
We were willing to overlook the structural issues since the pizza’s flavors were so good, and the next time we encountered mac ‘n cheese, we were wishing there was some tikka masala spice plus hot sauce to add to it. Which is to say that Navi Kitchen is definitely a spot worth trying.