Something unusual has been done with the decor at Natraj, an outstanding new Indian restaurant in Mission Viejo. It's been removed altogether.
The result is a large, white-walled dining room with the look of a museum gallery between exhibitions, the exotic feel of a Paul Bowles locale somewhere in the desert. You'd never recognize this as the location where Places Afar once dished out Vietnamese-Cuban food.
There are cloth-draped tables decorated with fresh flowers, as well as a green banquette running along the west wall, which makes the room a bit less threatening. You even get treated to Indian classical music while you dine--austere ragas, a whole lot more digestible than the Indian pop music some restaurants assault you with. But in the context of all this unused space, the appointments seem little more than an afterthought.
The owners are Vijay Khosla, a gracious young Punjabi from the Vale of Kashmir, and chef Bakshish Singh. Singh is also Punjabi, and his cooking tends to the mild side, although he will be happy to turn up the heat on request.
But what is really notable about the food here is the range of masalas, or spice mixtures, the chef uses. Few things here taste repetitious or tired. He's definitely one of the most inventive Indian chefs this area has to offer.
Come at lunch for an introduction to his cuisine--and one of the most generous lunch buffets in the entire county. For only $5.95, the restaurant serves a nine-dish buffet, including such daily standbys as rice, dal, salad, raita, tandoori chicken and chicken curry, and a changing array of vegetable dishes.
The particular treat in this buffet is a tomato-rich lentil soup that is somehow far more complex than the mulligatawny soup on the dinner menu. And of course you get naan bread hot from the tandoor, as well as a variety of chutneys and pickles.
The lunch should persuade you that dinner is a good bet. And indeed it is. Oddly enough, though, the one thing I haven't been overly impressed with here is the precise thing that brings most Westerners into an Indian restaurant, namely, food from the tandoor, or clay oven.
Most Indian restaurants give you tandoori meats that have been marinated for a long time in yogurt and spices, then cooked until quite well done. Here, you get the opposite. The tandoori chicken tastes as if it has merely been rubbed with spices, then cooked almost medium rare as you might expect in a lunchy California Cuisine place on the Westside of Los Angeles. Ditto for the seekh kebab here. The fire engine-red minced lamb could use more ginger, onion and time in the clay oven.
This cooking style does work for seafoods. Singh's fish tikka, also from the tandoor, is one of his real triumphs. He uses fresh swordfish (as opposed to the frozen hunks of mahi-mahi most Indian chefs favor for this dish), and his reluctance to overcook produces a wonderfully tender result. Shrimp tandoori is just fine, too, flavored lightly with garlic and a perfect match for the fragrant mint chutney.
But Singh really shines when he is cooking his many lamb, chicken and vegetable dishes, all with surprising subtleties. Karahi lamb is one of my favorites. The cubed lamb is cooked in an iron skillet with spices and served slightly dry, with a thin crust of masala on the outside. Chicken vindaloo, the vinegar-based stew from Goa, is amazing here. We asked for it hot and got it blistering, but the hotness was really integrated into the flavors of the dish.
Malai kofta, the best of a good vegetable group, is mock meat balls made from grated vegetables, served in a rich cream gravy. But there are many others: palak paneer, creamy spinach with cubes of farmer's cheese; a simple but wonderful dish of cauliflower and potato called aloo gobi; and fine bharta, where the smoky roasted eggplant is perfumed with cumin, coriander and ginger.
Breads come from the tandoor in most Indian restaurants, and like the other things from the tandoor here they do not impress. Keema naan, filled with the same mildly spiced meat used in the seekh kebab, lacks gusto. The layered whole wheat bread paratha is a bit dry.
And the lentil wafers pappadums, served as a complimentary hors d'oeuvre, lack the crispness they're supposed to have. (In the kitchen's glass window I saw a basket of them sitting around pre-cooked.)
You'll enjoy dessert, anyway. Gulab jamun, a golden cheese ball in a warm honey syrup, is light and sticky. Kulfi, a nut ice cream served in chunks, is rich and creamy; the chef makes it himself from pistachio, almond and milk. The runny rice pudding kheer, however, is a disappointment. It's too plain.
But I sure hope the restaurant stays that way.
Natraj is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.95 to $5.95. Breads are $1.95 to $2.95. Tandoori specialties are $5.95 to $11.95. Entrees are $7.95 to $13.95. Vegetable dishes are $5.95 and $6.95.
* 25932 Muirlands Blvd., Mission Viejo.
* (714) 581-4200.
* Open daily. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. through 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5 through 10:30 p.m.
* MasterCard and Visa accepted.