Clay Oven in Irvine may be 30 years old, but it’s remarkably fresh. Certainly the global consciousness of owners Geeta and Praveen Bansal contributes to its currency—their frequent travels are chronicled in chef Geeta’s food blog, which features interviews with an international roster of top chefs. And last September, Bansal cooked at the James Beard House in New York. I love her simple dishes, as well. But a restaurant’s longevity is dependent on having a loyal clientele. Clearly, Clay Oven’s regulars love the sophisticated, modern touches Bansal brings to her food.
Speaking of fresh: Some of the produce served at the restaurant comes from the Bansals’ own garden, including a wide variety of chiles, ranging in heat up to the notorious Carolina reaper and Trinidad moruga. I love these tropical chiles—they have a vegetal sweetness, in addition to supreme heat. There is debate among chileheads, but according to the Bansals’ son Tarun, Clay Oven manager and, chef Geeta says, her “in-house chile authority,” the Trinidad moruga is the hottest of the hot. At Clay Oven, it lends its mere 1.2 million Scoville units to a slow-braised lamb shank dish ($28).
“We put our ‘chile farm’ to good use, for sure,” says Geeta. “They’re all organic, and we grow and tend them ourselves. They range in color, shape, flavor, and potency. We match the chiles to create well-rounded dishes—the flavor profile is enhanced, but the taste of the other ingredients is not lost.”
There are lots of options on the Clay Oven menu for sampling the chile spectrum. Thai bird’s eye, jalapeño, and serrano chiles contrast with sweet figs in a new chutney, and bird’s eyes also appear in the kath katha chicken appetizer ($10). Chocolate habanero cheekily spices a seasonal kulfi ice cream ($10). Different Peruvian chiles go into two dishes: aji amarillo for crab ceviche ($14), and rocoto, which Geeta says is spicy but mild, in Kolkata fish curry with mustard oil ($25). A pair of vindaloos, lamb and pork, respectively get Scotch bonnet and bhut jolokia (each $22). Tabasco chiles complement rabbit curry ($26), and a rainbow mixture informs Clay Oven’s proprietary hot sauce—“not for the faint of heart,” Geeta cautions—habaneros and Carolina reapers, among others.
Perhaps the most intriguing, unusual chile from the Bansals’ garden is the black cobra, so striking that you won’t mistake it for any other. Its upright growing habit resembles the Chinese facing-heaven chile, but the pods are larger and distinctively dark. Geeta uses black cobras in a vindaloo of green, red, and yellow baby heirloom tomatoes with herbs, where the startling color stands out while adding a spice punch ($14).