Tandoori tacos is one of the dishes featured at the East Bay Spice Co. in Berkeley, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Tandoori tacos is one of the dishes featured at the East Bay Spice Co. in Berkeley, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) ( RAY CHAVEZ )

You know when you get that craving for expertly crafted cocktails and Indian comfort food? OK, maybe that's not the most conventional craving, but if it sounds like a combination you could embrace, there's a spot in Berkeley for you.

East Bay Spice Co. opened in April about a block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station near the university, and students are among the crowd that packs the downstairs bar area when the sun goes down.

Candles flicker on the tables, and the well-dressed bartenders shake their concoctions against a backdrop of liquor bottles arranged on shelves that require a library ladder for the upper reaches. Amid the bottles sit vintage spice grinders and scales, nodding to the restaurant's concept.

The drinks, you see, feature Indo-Asian spice combinations in house-infused vermouth, bitters and syrups. So, you might try a drink with cumin, caraway and anise (The Ornament of the World, $10) or fennel bitters (Portrait of a Lady, $11, named after a famous Indian poem).

Of the eight house cocktails offered on a recent visit, The Opium War ($10) was a smack-you-in-the-mouth standout. While its name hammers home the list's homage to India, a quick perusal of its ingredients -- Grand Poppy liqueur, Dolin dry vermouth, Benedictine herbal liqueur, St. George Spirits Absinthe and sea salt -- will help you understand that in a battle of intense flavors, you can emerge the winner.


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The cocktail program was devised by Jupiter Olympus consultant Eric Quilty, formerly of Adesso in Oakland, and Blind Tiger Cocktail Co.'s Adam Stemmler, who, along with UC Berkeley alumnus Joel DiGiorgio, helped owner Deepak Aggarwal transform his former buffet-style Indian restaurant into a place to sip and be seen.

Patrons enjoy drinks and their conversation at the East Bay Spice Co. in Berkeley, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Patrons enjoy drinks and their conversation at the East Bay Spice Co. in Berkeley, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) ( RAY CHAVEZ )

In the kitchen, Aggarwal helps prepare Indian dishes from family recipes, some of which you'll find at his other Berkeley restaurants, Mint Leaf in the Gourmet Ghetto and Khana Peena along Solano Avenue in the northern part of town. The menu is pared down from his more traditional establishments and features "contemporary Punjabi street food," such as the tandoori tacos ($4 each; three for $10). The flavors of the lamb with yogurt, onions, cilantro and tomato work well together and prove a simple but satisfying twist on standard bar fare.

If you're looking to stick with the Indian food you know, the chicken samosas are a good place to start. The crust is flaky and the insides lava-hot, and at $4 for three you can get a solid booze base for your buck. The naan -- plain ($2), garlic ($3) and cashew golden raisin ($3) -- is another student-prudent deal that showcases bar food at its oven-baked best.

For entrees, the lamb chops on the bone ($9) are a good choice for meat eaters, while the Seekh kebab with ground lamb ($9) showcases the smoky flavors borne in a traditional tandoor clay oven.

Despite a menu heavy on lamb and chicken, vegetarians have plenty of options. The puri cholay ($7) on the "street food" side are fried bread puffs and curried garbanzo beans prepared with -- remember the spice theme? -- cinnamon, black cardamom and Indian chai. The spinach, mustard greens and homemade cheese in the saag paneer ($8) might not make the most eye-appealing combination, but it's a curry worth the naan you should scoop it with.

Entrees aside, East Bay Spice Co.'s strength is catering to the college clientele and offering up unconventional, well-crafted cocktails and affordable comfort food that just happens to be Indian. When you're steps from a university and based in a city with fewer than 115,000 residents but more than 30 Indian food restaurants, creating an unusual combination can be a recipe for success.

Follow Tim O'Rourke at Twitter.com/timothyorourke.

East Bay Spice Co.

* * ½

WHERE: 2134 Oxford St., Berkeley
CONTACT: 510-845-4427, www.eastbayspicecompany.com
HOURS: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner service
5 to 11 p.m.
CUISINE: Indian meets cocktail bar
PRICES: $
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including three types of naan and saag paneer (spinach and mustard greens simmered with spices and cheese)
BEVERAGES: Unique cocktail menu, a handful of wines and a beer list focusing on India pale ales
RESERVATIONS: None
NOISE LEVEL: You can easily hear a conversation across a table even when it's busy.
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Kids and cocktails don't mix
PLUSES: Fun cocktails, affordable, authentic food and a hip vibe, without being trendy to a fault
MINUSES: Uneven service; dishes' presentations leave something to be desired
DATE OPENED: April

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Ratings

Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.

Price code

$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40