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SECOND HELPING : Royal Khyber: Well, Why Not Nouvelle Cuisine From India?

February 04, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Anyone who has eaten at Royal Khyber in Newport Beach knows it to be one of the most elegant restaurants in Orange County.

The interior design, with its carved marble walls, intimately secluded booths and gilt-edged mirrors, brings to mind a maharajah's palace. Service is smooth and accommodating. The smart crowd there on evenings and weekends dresses up for the occasion.

But change is afoot in the kitchen of this traditional restaurant, largely due to the wanderings of owner Arun Puri, who recently returned from a gastronomic tour of his native country.

In India, as in the rest of the world, there is a trend toward lightness. Ghee, or clarified butter, is now used more sparingly in the preparation of dishes, and the trend is slowly filtering back to the Indian restaurants here. Increasingly, foods are being cooked with steam instead of in the saute pan.

Royal Khyber has prided itself on using naturally grown spices such as cumin seed, fresh coriander and ginger in its kitchen, and on the fact that no eggs, cream or MSG are employed at all.

Now, there is an entire spate of new dishes that owner Puri feels is more appropriate to the current dining scene. Many of these are dishes just beginning to surface in this country. Puri hopes they will catch on in a big way.

An entire section of his menu is headed "nouvelle Indian cuisine," and it has many surprises. One of the cooking methods is dumpukhat (which means "choking of the steam" in Hindi), whereby food is slow-cooked in a covered casserole. The result is a gentle blending of the natural juices of the meats inside, mingling magically with a mild spice mixture.

One such dish is chicken methi dumpukhat, soft pieces of boneless chicken cooked with fenugreek, a pungent leafy vegetable in the spinach family.

Another is lamb biryani Hyderabadi, a full-flavored rice dish enlivened by frizzled onions and a heap of saffron.

Karahi entrees are advertised on Puri's newly expanded menu as "very light, flavorful and colorful," and I wouldn't disagree. A karahi is an iron skillet that north Indian cooks use the way Chinese use a wok. The unusual (for Indian cuisine, at least) inclusion of olive oil, along with the more familiar garlic, tomatoes and spices, aid in the proceedings. Try the karahi shrimp, cooked with powerful spices, or the paneer, which is cubed Indian cheese cooked with hot chili peppers.

Such party dishes as murgh mussalam and leg of lamb have also been added. You'll need 45 minutes for the murgh, a whole chicken stuffed with minced lamb in a mild sauce. Leg of lamb requires a 12-hour notice and a whole lot of friends. In this case, you get the entire leg, marinated in fresh garlic, ginger and yogurt. I'd like to see them get one of those in a metal saucepan.

Royal Khyber

1000 N. Bristol St., Newport Beach.

(714) 752-5200.

Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m; dinner nightly 5:30 to 10 p.m.

All major cards accepted.

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