The other night, I had a meal that was more fun, more absorbing, more memorable than anticipated; a meal whose pleasures caught me by surprise. A feast.
I had been to the new India's Oven before and had a pretty good meal, so I thought I knew what to expect: decent-to-good northern Indian food, somewhat minimal service, deliciously reasonable prices.
Recently, after the original location on Pico was destroyed by fire following the Rodney G. King beating trial verdict, India's Oven moved into what was formerly the home of Aashiana, an elegant upstairs location on the northeast corner of Barrington Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. The new location features mirrors, houseplants, a smoky plate-glass vista of Wilshire, carpeting and table linens in shades of mauve and red. There's a fountain gurgling in the stairwell, a full bar at the entrance. In keeping with this plusher new image, India's Oven has relinquished its former Styrofoam tableware in favor of good sturdy beige Melmac. But while India's Oven may have elevated its appearance, the prices have not gone up.
Just poke your head in on a Saturday night. You'll see the tables full, the bar full, a line at the door, waiters running full tilt, and a lot of people happily tearing into fat bubbly naan and putting out spice fires with big bottles of Taj Mahal beer.
But back to The Meal. It was a Monday night, relatively slow. There were three of us, and we ordered an extensive amount of food.
Six of the seven courses arrived at once. First in my mouth was the lamb curry, and it was hot , tortuously hot. My friend Benjamin, a man with a cast-iron mouth, ate multiple servings of lamb, however, pausing only to wax rapturously about the smooth, rich texture of the sauce.
After dousing the hot lamb curry fire with some refreshing raita (yogurt, garlic and shredded cucumber), I found great happiness in some of the other, more moderately spiced dishes.
Light and refreshing was the bhindi tori --okra lightly sauteed with ginger, cumin and tomatoes. Mattar paneer was a nice concoction of peas cooked with fresh Indian cheese and a tasty, mild sauce. Tandoori shrimp, covered with fresh onions, had a sweet, barbecued flavor. But the dish I dipped into the most was probably the black lentil dal , a stew of slow-cooked lentils, onions and spices with a flavor that simply wouldn't quit. Our breads included naan and the smaller, crisper whole-wheat paratha , also alu paratha , stuffed with spicy mashed potatoes.
The absorbing part of the meal came from learning the art of assembling good bites: Tear a piece of good paratha . Heap on a little rice, a drenching of dal , a dollop of good smoky eggplant bhartha . . . chomp ! Next time, take a piece of naan , add rice, okra, raita . . . chomp ! Now, a bite with one sweet tandoori shrimp, two slivers of raw onion, a squeeze of fresh lemon . . . chomp ! Bubbly naan , peas and raita . . . chomp ! Oh, go ahead, sneak a touch of that tortuously hot lamb on a hunk of one of the breads, along with rice, dal and raita to help extinguish the fire.
After an initial frenzy, our assembled bites grew smaller and less frequent, until we had slowed down to one delicious bite every few minutes. Eventually, the waiter came and cleared away the dishes.
Other visits yielded more pleasures and only an occasional disappointment. India's Oven is rightfully famous for its tandoori chicken. The saag tends to be a bit salty. The samosas, although tasty enough, could only be heavier if weighted with rocks. Mango lassi is pleasurably smooth and not too sweet, although I would have liked mine to be cold, rather than at room temperature.
The service seems always to run at a hectic pace, which makes snagging a waiter's attention something of a sporting venture, akin to catching butterflies. Sometimes, in the rush of it all, an item may be forgotten, a bill rather long in coming. But when the bill does arrive and we weight the pleasures and the small aggravations against the grand total, there's no possibility we could leave the premises any way but downright pleased.
India's Oven, 11645 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 936-1000. Lunch and dinner seven days. Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Validated parking . Full bar. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$30.