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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON : This Tandoori Food Is Real Close to the Real Thing

January 31, 1991|MAX JACOBSON

I had the best Indian meal of my entire life at a private home in Madras, a south Indian city famous for its wonderful, practically meatless cuisine. Only this meal consisted almost entirely of meats.

They were ordinary cuts of lamb, chicken and goat; the secret was in the marinade, a yogurt-based emulsion of oil, spices and considerable magic. Then after emerging, crusty and spicy, from the tandoor oven, the meat was liberally rolled in more fresh ground spices. Four years later, I can still close my eyes and taste it.

Pathan Tandoori Grill in Fullerton does not give my Madrassi friend Gita a real run for his money, but this kitchen makes as close to good tandoori cooking as you'll find in these parts.

This Fullerton restaurant is quite near the Indian community concentrated around Norwalk and Cerritos. It stands to reason that its authenticity isn't likely to be compromised, because the Indian community makes up a large part of the restaurant's customer base. Arun Puri, who also owns the more luxurious (and Westernized) Royal Khyber in Newport Beach, intends to keep it that way.

Puri has put together a short but sweet menu of tandoori specialties, plus a few other northern Indian dishes to give them balance. A charming Punjabi woman named Rekha Kapur provides graceful, homespun hospitality as manager. And chef Gurmel Singh, a princely Sikh in a splendid peacock-blue turban, looms large in the restaurant's open kitchen.

As for the surroundings: Well, I'd call them modest. My friends actually found the place a bit dreary, despite a gallery of stained-glass portraits of maharajas and the gurgling fountain in the center of the room, obviously a holdover from a previous concept. (The fountain dates from when the restaurant was known as the Taj, one incarnation back.)

Yes, the lighting is dim and the place looks a bit run-down. The ceiling is in slight disrepair. The soprano whine of Indian ragas over the loudspeaker can jangle the nerves; the belly dancing on weekends is sure to.

But despite these infirmities, the meats alone are reason to visit. All tandoori dinners are served on metal dishes, accompanied by grilled onions with ginger and cilantro, good curried lentils, fluffy tandoori bread (naan) and a piquant salad.

You'll naturally want one of those tandoori dinners, but first you'll want to know how the meats are cooked. Rekha Kapur will kindly explain.

"We marinate all our meats for a minimum of 24 hours," she says in her delightful, singsong lilt, "in a marinade of coriander, garlic, ginger and yogurt. Our masala," she continues, "contains cinnamon, clove, cumin and cardamom, which we grind fresh every day." This is not, clearly, something you can throw together on a whim.

Furthermore, all meats, according to the menu, can be ordered tawa bhuna style, meaning precisely that they get the extra-spice treatment I enjoyed in Madras. Believe me, you'll want them that way.

The best of them would have to be ginger boti masala, which is boneless cubes of lamb that crumble on the fork. I ate an entire order, probably a pound of meat, and could have eaten another. The best chicken dish has to be garlic reshami murg, made from boneless strips of breast, heavy on the garlic.

I actually didn't enjoy the vaunted tandoori chicken, an entire bird scented with sweet spices and basted scarlet. Later, I found out why. The chicken is often cooked in the afternoon here, then reheated in the evening. Whoever reheated mine must like cold chicken.

There are alternatives to broiled meats here. You have a few curry choices: an authentic Mughlai lamb curry called pathani gosht, or murgh makhani, which is chicken cooked in a cream sauce. I think these dishes miss the point, though.

The side dishes make more sense. The stewed eggplant (bengan bartha) has a smoky flavor from a visit to the tandoor oven. Aloo gobhi is a cauliflower and potato mixture with just the right texture to accompany roasted meat. But avoid the bhindi; it's made from frozen okra, and tastes like it.

You'll want to order some of the breads that come straight from the clay oven. I find garlic naan, full of chopped garlic cloves, the perfect complement for tandoori dishes. If you pass on the break, you might order one of the biryani dishes (pilafs). Paratha is a layered whole-wheat bread well suited to curries, and onion kulcha is an unleavened bread stuffed with onions and green herbs.

Finish with kheer, an excellent rice pudding made from boiled-down milk with slivers of almond and plum raisins mixed in. And if you have a fearless palate, there is masala tea, a strong black tea mingled with far too much clove.

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