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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Great Balls of Fire

December 12, 1991|JONATHAN GOLD

If you've hung around grad students much, you've probably eaten a lot of "Indian vegetarian food" in your time, gloppy masses of peas and lentils, great handfuls of exotic spice, loaves and casseroles and stinky clots of cauliflower. It's the kind of cooking that groovy, planet-conscious guys invariably turn to as soon as they've mastered Rice-a-Roni and Kraft Dinner. Plus, you can throw together enough grub to feed a large dinner party for about $2.99, and you can always feed the leftovers to your cat.

The next step up on the food chain is the college-town Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant, where the emphasis changes from curried baked things to curried fried things, course after course of crisp little balls, tubes and patties--thingamajigs--that seem always to be stuffed with turmeric-stained potatoes, served with a sweet mango dip and accompanied by the drearier sort of North Indian music. The cuisine might be vegetarian, but you'd be hard put to find anything you could actually identify as a vegetable.

Better than those are "sweet shops" (found in Indian neighborhoods in Culver City, Artesia and Reseda) that usually sell fresh, simple Indian vegetarian snacks along with their various halvahs, boiled-milk bon-bons and milky spiced teas. Cooked to the Indian taste, the snacks are at least authentic . . . and often delicious.

Jay Bharat Restaurant, one of the best sweet shops in the Southland and the only one specializing in the vegetarian cooking of the Gujarat region of midwestern India, anchors the south end of Artesia's main Indian drag, Pioneer Boulevard. A solid mile of Indian jewelry stores and groceries line the street, and you're never more than a few steps away from a bargain-priced Bhappi Lahiri cassette or a really cute sari. Luridly colored posters in shop windows announce Indian movies and pop concerts; notices tacked to bulletin boards advertise school dances and Gujarati-speaking baby sitters. It's perhaps the only local neighborhood where nobody looks twice at a man wearing a scarlet turban, a three-piece suit and a mustache black as night.

Jay Bharat is about as unassuming as a restaurant can get, furnished with sticky tables and folding chairs, decorated with a few posters, centered around a glass counter filled with sweets and snacks. The menu, a couple-dozen-odd Indian phrases conspicuously without English explanation, is posted behind the cash register--you order sort of randomly, hoping that you haven't gotten too many fried dough balls, and the food is brought to your table. And the funny thing is, no matter what you order, it all comes out kind of the same. That's a good thing: Gujarat is as renowned for its vegetarian snacks as Toulouse is for cassoulet.

Bhel are thin-shelled, crunchy, hollow things, cradling a few beans and bits of potato, into which you spoon a spicy vegetable water the color of a pine forest; pani wada , soft biscuit deals that look not unlike White Castle burgers, are filled with a wonderful, intensely garlicky vegetable puree. Pettis , fried balls stuffed with a coconut-chile mixture, look like--but taste different from-- kachori , fried balls stuffed with spiced peas . . . which look like but taste different from samosas. By the time you get through a few of these, your table will be littered with little containers of sweet chutney, dal and spicy, green coconut chutney, and you will be fuller than you've been since Thanksgiving.

Of the soups, ragda pattis is a masterpiece of texture, a thin yellow-pea stew topped with crunchy fried noodles, garnished with raw, chopped onion, concealing pillows of soft potato and a bright cilantro puree.

And then there's the pancake food group. Masala dosai , the famous South Indian crepe, is done very well here, huge and crispy, wrapped around the inevitable spiced potatoes and served with coconut chutney and a little container of thin vegetable curry; mesui masala , a variation, is folded over spicier potatoes spiked with tomatoes and coconut. Uttupan , great sourdough pancakes of approximately IHOP consistency, can be had stuffed with a thick, sweet layer of sauteed onions, or with spiced potatoes; go for the onions. Khandri are rolled, room-temperature pancakes dusted with cilantro, shredded coconut and spice; khaman are fluffier, block-shaped, somehow less tasty versions of khandri . There is a thali , sort of a combo deal with fried puffs, all of the sauces listed above, a stew or two and some pungent Indian pickles, all served on a metal plate.

Thingamajigs, sure . . . but it's a meal you won't forget--especially at about 3 a.m. the morning after.

Jay Bharat Restaurant, 18701 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (310) 924-3310. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $5-$10.

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