I knew a fellow named Mumtaz when I was growing up in New York. We called him "Mummy," for short. Mummy was a street kid. Tough, rough. Raw.
So when the Mumtaz restaurant sign jumped out at me on Melrose Avenue while I was driving by one day, I knew I had to see what was inside.
But the restaurant is a far cry from the Mumtaz I knew. I mean personality-wise. The Mumtaz restaurant is, by comparison, feminine (named after the Queen Mumtaz, who inspired the Taj Mahal) and elegant--or at least it tries very hard to be--for a place without the trappings of decor or design. Even so, the crisp pink napkins standing like soldiers at attention on the plates, the Indian sitar music undulating in the background, the bow-tied waiters, whose manner is reminiscent of Colonial India, ooze a sense of decayed grandeur that I find charming.
Mumtaz is a neighborhood restaurant and nothing more. Nor does it pretend, I think, to be more. Yet the food, to my pleasant surprise, was more than I expected. Good show, really, for a struggling I-don't-know-how-they-manage-but-they-do, not-with-it, restaurant on the hottest spot on restaurant row. I plan to make Mumtaz a regular answer to my frequent curry and Indian bread cravings.
Mumtaz's cuisine, however, covers a range of Indian cuisines, from north, south and southeast regions, represented in such dishes as the Northern tandoori, Southern curries and Southeastern vegetarian fare.
There are two prix-fixe dinners--vegetarian and five-course kebab or curry dinner with dessert for $10.95 and $15.95, respectively, that will give you a good range of the cuisine. Or, if you're around for lunch, stop by and try some of the combination luncheons, which include samplings of items from several regions, as well.
Otherwise, the individual dishes are relatively inexpensive and abundant for the price (which range from $1.95 for some very good deep-fried onion cakes, to $15.95 for King prawns cooked with tomatoes) and worth mixing and matching according to your taste.
The categories will help you develop a menu. You can start with appetizers (don't miss the onion pakoraz, the Mumtaz version of Tony Roma's fried onion rings, except that these are shaped into cakes. The samosas, stuffed pastries filled with minced meat or potatoes, were outstanding, thanks to the delicately crisp and flaky crust that I found better than the oil-drenched samosa crusts one finds even in the grandest restaurants. The chicken tikka served as an appetizer is almost as abundant as entree tikkas are at other Indian restaurant menus. So you're getting a good deal, even if you stick only to two or three appetizers. But don't. Give the restaurant a break and order a few of the entrees.
The breads are terrific, by the way. And if you want to start with a nibble of food before the dishes parade in, a fine pappdam --the crisp, spicy wafer served with dipping sauces--should help. It's not to an Indian waiter's liking to serve bread as a premeal snack because bread is customarily served with the meal in India. But he'll fetch it graciously and soon learn that in Los Angeles--maybe the United States--bread is an antidote to finger-tapping disease. The naan was extraordinary. The layered wheat paratha was so-so, although it seems to have been so-so no matter where I have dined.
The yogurt-marinated tikka dishes (chicken and lamb) were exceptionally good. So were the tandoori dishes (those cooked in the vertical clay tandoori oven). Among them whole tandoori quail is offered along with chicken, fish, lobster and prawns, plus the tikka and kebabs.
I like to dig into the curries category of Indian menus; and there are several to choose from, including the classic vindaloo, which is hot enough to rocket you to the moon. When Mumtaz says hot, it's hot.
The massala, a yogurt-tomato sauce curry is also good. I'll try the Madras another time.
There are a few biryani dishes, including pulao, the saffroned basmati rice. The biryanis are mixed dishes, including some type of meat or vegetable. Seafood lovers will find a few very interesting dishes, such as shrimp dhansak, a slightly sweet and sour shrimp cooked with lentils and herbs (for the extra-daring), and bhoona, made with shrimp fried in butter and simmered in a spicy sauce. There are lots of vegetables to choose from: dal turka (lentils cooked in butter and garlic); brijal bhajee (spicy eggplant); bhendi massala (okra fried with onions) the palak paneer (cheese and spinach) and mixed vegetables. So there is just no way a vegetarian can go hungry at Mumtaz.