Indian cooking is labor intensive, a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why a cuisine with so much variety is so poorly represented in this country. The overwhelming majority of Indian restaurants here serve Mughlai cuisine, the north India variant brought into India by the Moguls and Persians many centuries ago, and have menus that are almost carbon copies of one another. If you doubt that, just try to find a Bengali or south Indian restaurant sometime. You'll be a long time looking.
What probably has happened is that Indian restaurateurs have found a successful formula and are reluctant to deviate from it. That's why whenever I see unusual dishes on an Indian menu I am tempted to rush right over and taste them. You would think I would have learned my lesson by now.
The Clay Oven in Irvine, a handsome, year-old Mughlai restaurant inauspiciously situated in a country shopping mall, was cast in the role of temptress just recently and played the part to the hilt. After an evening's experience there, I left with my head turned by the mysterious scents and exotic perfumes of a complicated cuisine. I may not have gotten exactly what I came for, but in the end, I had been seduced anyway.
The restaurant is small and charming, with a billowing, canvas ceiling that looks almost like a nomad's tent in the Sahara. Victorian chandeliers add a nostalgia air of the days of the Raj.
The seduction is heightened by excellent poppadum , the spicy, lentil flour wafers that are often so unpalatable in lesser Indian restaurants. Poppadum are usually fried, and sometimes can be as oily as blotter paper in a truck stop cafe. In this restaurant they are baked, and delightfully fresh and crispy. Accompanying the poppadum is a fine selection of chutneys, and raita , the yogurt-based cucumber sauce that does such a good job tempering the hotness of Indian food. Wash them down with bottles of Taj Mahal or the lighter bodied Kingfisher, both first-rate beers imported from India. Then it is time to wrestle with the menu.
The first thing I wanted was the mughlai-hoosaini kabab , lamb patties mixed with egg, herbs and spices, and finished in the tandoor , the clay oven for which the restaurant is named. The waiter gently tried to talk me out of it, but I was not in any mood to trifle.
Soon my table got a visit from the slightly abashed young manager. "We don't have this dish tonight," he said with a smile. "Fine," I said, "how about the panipuri instead?" referring to an appetizer of spiced wafers and curried vegetables that is a specialty in Bombay and the south coast of India. His smile widened.
"We also want kamargah ," I said raising my eyebrows in anticipation of the Kashmiri lamb chops that also represent a departure from standard Indian menus. "Supposing I tell you what we are out of tonight," he said softly. I gave up. "You order for us," I said. "Bring us your favorite dishes." I dove straight back into my beer. "Yes sir," he said, and off he went, leaving me with the distinct feeling that I had been seduced and abandoned. "Maybe they should call this place the Clay Pigeon," remarked one of my guests.
Happily, I had little else to complain about. The food they do serve is well above average. Fish tikka , chunks of swordfish broiled in the tandoor , is downright heavenly, maybe the best single Indian dish I have had in California. Tandoori chicken is also a winner, rubbed red with a masala mixture and broiled until sizzling.
Actually, the kitchen does the restaurant's name proud; things prepared in the oven are the real standouts here. A tender sheehk kabab, the minced lamb appetizer flavored with coriander, is not a bit dry (as it has a tendency to be), and breads like onion kulcha and keema naan come out hot, moist and chewy. Other items from the tandoor include shrimp masala and yogurt-marinated chicken.
The rest of the dishes are merely average, but few are objectionable. Things are considerably toned down here, so if you're looking for the heat, you'll have to request it. Avoid the chicken tikka masala , though, described as "out of sight" by the manager. It comes in a yogurt-based tomato sauce colored a ghastly orange, with a stingy portion of cubed chicken floating around in it. I would say "out of mind" was a more apt description. Try the murgh sadabahar instead, listed in the box marked "chef's recommendations." It is boneless chicken in an herbed sauce colored an appealing shade of green.
Vegetables are a big part of Indian cuisine. Luckily for us, aloo gobhi , the cauliflower and potato saute, was available that night, as was dahl makhani , the lentil staple eaten every day in India, with the surprise addition of kidney beans. Perhaps their best vegetable is okra (lady-fingers in India) in a dry saute with onions, ginger and spices. We actually fought over that dish.