Subtly seasoned Indian cuisine may seem a contradiction in terms, but I found it at Mayur in Corona del Mar.
Subtle, that is, relative to the burning intensity I've found in other Orange County Indian restaurants. But not bland. Rather, Mayur's dishes tantalize with essence of cloves, turmeric, bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cilantro and much more. Yes, there's the heat of chiles and black and cayenne pepper, but in most dishes they do not paralyze the taste buds. Thus, here you can actually taste and enjoy wine (from a well-chosen, reasonably priced list) as well as beer.
Is this Americanized Indian fare?
"No," insists Anju Kapoor, hostess/manager/co-owner. "It is more like Indian home cooking." Mayur's chef, Dharan Singh Punair, was Kapoor's personal chef for many years in India.
Our piece de resistance one evening was murg massalam . A whole chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, stuffed with minced lamb and herbs, it's dramatically topped with a very thin sheet of genuine silver leaf.
While waiting for the chicken we ordered a mixed tandoori and watched through the kitchen window as the chef threaded meats on huge skewers and plunged them into the clay tandoor. On the walls of this cylindrical oven, fired white hot by charcoal, he slapped flattened balls of dough to make those great chewy breads, unleavened paratha and leavened nan .
Our tandoori, though beautifully cooked, was a bit of a disappointment--only chicken and minced lamb; no shrimp or fish. But karahi lamb, cooked to tenderness in a small wok-like pan, met all our expectations.
Vegetable accompaniments include bharta (eggplant roasted with tomatoes and onions), but we enjoyed palak paneer , spinach in a fragrant blend of spices with made-at-Mayur cheese. And delicately seasoned basmati rice with pine nuts was terrific.
On our second visit, the mixed appetizer included excellent vegetable fritters (pakoras) , delicate pastries filled with mildly spiced potatoes and peas (samosa) , succulent chicken tikka , minced seekh kebab and tongue-scorching ground lentil wafers (papadam) .
Another pleasant appetizer, shrimp chat with pineapple cubes, is unique for its sweet and sour sauce flavored with a touch of pungent herbal rock salt.
Cinnamon and cilantro paired well in Mayur's mulligatawny, a splendid chicken-based soup of creamed lentils and cubes of chicken and rice. Ginger chicken, marinated in yogurt and ginger, was a surprise with hotness, whereas lamb tikka was a delight with charcoal overtones. Lamb saag combines meat with spinach, onions, tomato, cream and an intricate blend of spices.
Other Mayur specialties include whole quail marinated in ginger, garlic and spices; fish tikka kebab; the hotly spiced boneless chicken vindaloo and lobster bhuna . Punair also will fill special requests.
Of the desserts, the little deep-fried balls of gulab jamun were greasy and very sweet; the "cheesecake," a hard curd, squeaked as I chewed. I'd suggest the creamy rice pudding, attractively served with a delicate leaf of silver.
You can taste a variety of dishes at noon in several different luncheon platters, and the Sunday Champagne brunch buffet features dishes not found on the daily menu.
Mayur, 2931 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar; (714) 675-6622. Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, $6.95 to $9.95, Sunday brunch, $9.95. Dinner nightly, from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; a la carte specialties from $6.25 to $18.95. Reservations suggested. All major credit cards. Lot and street parking.