Ananda Fuara - Vegetarian Restaurant
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Give peace a chance

Review by the Bay Guardian
By Paul Reidinger

Complaining about restaurants is one of the great local pastimes, and when you listen to enough people unburden themselves, you begin to detect patterns of discontent. Noise is a big one these days, as is overambitious, gimmick driven decoration. There are irrelevant, intrusive themes and high prices. But the biggest and most common problems customers seem to have with restaurants are service problems. Staff are nasty or incompetent or both, in breach of any restaurant's basic mission to be an emissary of the hospitality business.

The antidote, of course (other than going out less, or never), is a restaurant that does not suffer from these problems. There is such a restaurant; it's called Ananda Fuara, a simple, pleasant vegetarian place in the Civic Center. Its staff is unfailingly pleasant and efficient, the food tasty, inexpensive, and healthy, the simple, robin's eggblue interior design comfortable, neither over nor underdone. Downsides: no filet mignon, no paying with plastic, no late nights. But that's a pittance to pay for being treated with civility.

Unlike the nouvelle vegetarian places (one thinks of nearby Millennium, and Valentine's on outer Church), Ananda Fuara isn't doing anything fancy no mixing and matching of cuisines, ingredients, techniques. The menu is instead a mishmash of traditional dishes, many of them from India. There's a "curry of the day" always $8.95, "not too spicy, but full of flavor" and main dishes all offer the possibility of dal, the Indian lentil stew, as a side dish.

You can have dal even with such distinctly non Indian dishes as Greek spinach pie ($7.95), layers of baked phyllo dough separated by strata of spinach and feta cheese, served with a pile of shredded carrots. Or with black bean tostadas ($7.95), a massive plate of legumes and Spanish rice overrunning a pair of crisp tortillas, the whole thing topped by a blizzard of grated cheddar cheese, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. If the idea of accompanying such a dish with dal doesn't appeal, there's always a salad, or a daily soup (which, if it happens to be split pea, isn't a lot different from the dal: thick and well spiced).

The menu does offer some quasimeat items, like barbecue tofu burger and "neat loaf:' but the best dishes are the ancient ones that have never included meat in the first place. Hummus ($2.95), for instance the Middle Eastern paste of chickpeas and tahini exhales the penetrating perfumes of lemon and garlic and makes a satisfying spread on whole wheat chapati (tortilla like pancakes).

And of course there's really no improving on falafel ($5.50), which appears here in burrito like wrap guise, accompanied by a heap of tabbouleh, the bulgur wheat salad of the Middle East. We thought the tabbouleh was a little dry and couldn't finish it. We thought the same, on an earlier visit, of the basmati rice served beside samosas ($7.95), pillows of pastry dough stuffed with a potato mixture my friend found "underspiced?' The fortifying presence of raita (the Indian condiment of yogurt, cucumber, curry, and mint) and a tomato salsa helped matters but could not entirely mask the underlying deficiency.

So Ananda Fuara isn't perfect. And there is, above the far corner of the dining room, a TV monitor playing an infinite loop of some kind of meditation video. It ought to strike diners as distracting, possibly strange, but instead it seems to contribute to the place's overall mood of calm friendliness.

To that end, the Joseph Schmidt chocolate truffles our server was doling out for free at the end of a visit had an even greater effect. Of course, chocolate truffles rarely fail to satisfy, and when they appear, little bundles of elegance gratis, no less at the end of a virtuous, simple, healthy meal, they're that much more glamorous. And a reminder of the sophisticated metropolis outside.

All too soon the truffles are gone, the bill paid, the dishes cleared, and we step back outside, to the concrete and the city and the hurrying crowds, the people who elbow past you on the sidewalk without meeting your eye, who are getting into cars whose horns they will mercilessly honk if anyone obstructs them. It's as hard to imagine that stream of impersonal hostility when sitting inside Ananda Fuara as it is to imagine the serenity of Ananda Fuara a restaurant whose staff is helpful and pleasant, whose mood is one of peace while being honked at by some road rager in the great world beyond the restaurant's doors. But the restaurant is there, and it is serene.