Indian Celebrity Chef’s Influence Expands With The Yellow Chilli in Tustin

Papaya Peanut Kachumber; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

I had to look away from the etched glass portrait of the handsome fellow. His smiling gaze over my every bite started to feel unsettling. After all, Sanjeev Kapoor is India’s mega-celebrity chef. Bigger than Wolfgang or Martha. The Yellow Chilli in Tustin, open since May, is another franchise of his global brand, now with five restaurants in the U.S., including two in Orange County. There’s also one in Buena Park, but the Tustin site is better, so it’s the focus of this review.

There is no doubt Kapoor knows his way around Indian cuisine (and brand licensing), but given he’s not cooking in this kitchen, how well do his many recipes translate to full-service dining in a center overstuffed with restaurants? Quite admirably, I say. On each visit, the attractive venue is ever busier.

At peak hours, the 80-seat room and wraparound 60-seat patio are lively. Families with toddlers, date-nighters, and enthused foodies keep the energy and noise level high, aided by open-air proximity to congested Park Avenue. One night we are treated to a motorcycle stunt so loud, it had kids under 5 howling, and I momentarily considered hitting the deck. But that’s not The Yellow Chilli’s doing; it’s just one of the checkered joys of The District.

Kapoor is not stingy with his offerings, as the massive menu proves. The master chef hosted a popular cooking show for 17 years, so there’ll be no one-page menu here. Even better is the aid of knowledgeable servers. Only Indian food aficionados will not have questions. I also appreciate the wine suggestions for most dishes, another wise extra.

Clockwise from top: Braised lamb shank; long-grain rice; spinach dumplings in tomato gravy; prawns with bell peppers and aromatic spices; Indian flatbread with onions and chiles; and lentils; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Don’t miss Shaam Savera, one of Kapoor’s most famous creations. I rank flavor way above fame, so I’m happy to say this intricate vegetarian dish works as a starter, light main, or even a reheated leftover. It’s pretty, too. Open-face spinach dumplings filled with fresh white soft cheese (paneer) float in a pool of silky tomato gravy with hints of garlic, cardamom, and mace. We added chicken tikka (Murgh Angaar Bedgi), reddish with mild bedgi chiles and ultra-tender from marinating in yogurt before cooking. Fluffy plain basmati rice, hot squares of flatbread flecked with sweet onions (Pyaaz Mirch ki Roti), and a chaser of watermelon juice makes for a hearty lunch for two. I can’t get behind the sticky-sweet Gulab-e-Gulkand filled with candied rose petals, though it’s a big seller. Next time, I’ll try the rose-flavored rice pudding or saffron- spiked ice cream.

Subsequent test-drives required hungrier guests just to make a dent in that prodigious menu. Being a sucker for green papaya salad, I had to order Papaya Peanut Kachumber. Because it was on the dainty side, we quickly cleaned the plate. To avoid negotiating over the many nonvegetarian appetizers, we submitted to the assortment platter. Because we unwittingly had some of the same items as main dishes, I would have the vegetarian platter next time. But that didn’t stop us from eating every item. My favorite was the curry-soaked chicken thighs, Puran Singh da Tariwala Murgh, a nod to a legendary food stall in North India, says the menu. This item appeared again as a main dish one guest ordered. The curry flavors were gentle and the portion generous. This one’s a good choice for those who fear spicy heat.

The 80-seat room and wraparound 60-seat patio; Photograph by Emily J. Davis

To be certain we get something five-alarm-chile hot, I order the Nizami Tarkari Biryani. An interesting mélange of vegetables tossed with rice, the heat was from mega-hot chiles hiding in the mix. But all was cooled by a soothing bowl of raita, a condiment made with yogurt, and a bite of roti, a buttery flatbread. Still, this dish is best for heat-seekers. The winning dish on the table that dinner was the fall-apart tender lamb shank, Nalli Rogan Josh, sauced by a complex and carefully composed symphony of toasted spices and braising by way of Kashmir. Wok-cooked spiced tails-on prawns, Kadai Jheenga, with bell peppers is less lovable. The sweetness of prawns, which should be highlighted, gets lost in a traffic jam of ingredients.

It’s a good bet you’ve never been in an Indian restaurant that looks like The Yellow Chilli. Modern and stylish with lots of sparkle (Bollywood rules), indoor seating is upholstered in vibrant hues of pool blue and marigold. Light fixtures are sleek and chic. The showstopper is a chandelier deconstructed into a long wave of twinkling gems.

Clearly, Kapoor doesn’t have secret recipes; he has more than 150 cookbooks out there. You could find the recipe for every dish on The Yellow Chilli’s mega menu and cook those at home. But there’s no need to since he’s holding tight to high standards for this Tustin franchise. The real heroes here are Praveen Nair, Yogesh Gupta, and Indu Sansi—partners intent on delighting us with faithful Indian fare served in a nifty setting.

Sip craft cocktails at the spacious bar. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

2463 Park Ave.
Tustin, 714-389-5280

➜ Papaya salad (Papaya Peanut Kachumber)
➜ Spinach dumplings (Shaam Savera)
➜ Braised lamb shank (Nalli Rogan Josh)
➜ Onion and chile flatbread (Pyaaz Mirch ki Roti)
➜ Biryani (Nizami Tarkari)

PRICE RANGE: Dinner, $7 to $22

FYI: Kapoor’s cooking show aired more than 800 episodes.

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