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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Spice of Life : The relocated Canard de Bombay lets enthusiasts turn the heat up or down on the quirkily accented Indian dishes.

March 19, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I had to slam on the brakes when I noticed Canard de Bombay of London in Studio City.

Surely, I thought, this couldn't be any relation to the late, lamented Canard de Bombay of London on San Vicente Boulevard. That restaurant enjoyed a unique reputation as a place where superstar chefs such as Wolfgang Puck would stop in for fiery-hot Indian dishes. It passed from the scene almost five years ago.

But when I walked in, I saw proprietors Karen and Saad Ghazi themselves buzzing around in this modest, somewhat cramped cafe. Yes, Canard de Bombay lives, complete with the same menu as the San Vicente restaurant.

Saad, for those who remember him, has changed a bit since his last restaurant. He's shaved off his mustache, for example, and seems calmer. But Karen remains the same bubbly London hostess I recalled, and the food, mostly cooked by her husband, hasn't lost a single bit of its charm or eccentricity.

What made Canard de Bombay a great cult favorite, I think, was a quirky, even unique approach to spicing. Most dishes on Canard de Bombay's extensive menu are mild, but about one-third are not. Those dishes are marked with one, two, three or even four stars to indicate the degree of hotness.

One star will suit the first-timer, hot enough to cut the richness of meat in creamy sauces. Two stars gives the palate a subtle jolt. Three stars, definitely not for the faint-hearted, revs up dishes such as egg curry, bland vegetable preparations and the vinegary meat and potato stews called vindaloo. Four stars is serious business, hot enough to make you sweat in tiny beads and pretty close to most people's physical limit.

By request, Ghazi will take a dish up to 10 if you can stand it. I'll bet my last dollar you can't.

Before digging into the menu here, bear in mind that this is Anglo-Indian food, a bit different in spirit and substance than the Mughlai style that predominates around Los Angeles these days. The sauces tend to be thicker, yet employ relatively little oil. Meats, particularly broiled ones, have less penetrating flavors.

You discover that when you order something like the restaurant's London tandoori mixed grill. It includes broiled onions, fresh naan bread and good roasted tandoori chicken--extremely mild, faintly red from a spicy rubdown and fairly delicious--but the other meats on the plate are a bit of a letdown. Seekh kebab is ground, spiced meat shaped into cylinders, lamb tikka is small chunks of lean lamb, and both have been tamed for the British palate. To my taste, they would benefit from a more traditional Indian marinade or a crust of pure spice.

The sauteed dishes can really shine here, because they are the ones that allow the chef to showcase his eccentricities. Egg curry sounds totally unassuming, for example--a metal dish of halved hard-cooked eggs in a thick red curry sauce--but it isn't, no way. We had the chef prepare it three-star fashion, and the spicing was distinctive, based on ginger, perhaps garlic and definitely a lot of hot peppers.

Another success story was chicken methi , in which boneless pieces of white-meat chicken are combined with fenugreek leaf, a green belonging to the pea family. Fenugreek has a powerful aftertaste. Two stars' worth of chile stands up to it about right.

I might complain that the meat dishes are more sauce than meat. Another problem is that the 139-dish menu is almost impossible to sort out. Here are some basic principles: The hottest menu item is something called phal , denoted by four stars and described only as "a thick and rich sauce." The mildest dishes are the kormas , meats and vegetables in a grainy, creamy sauce that wouldn't trouble an infant child.

Chicken mussammon , a name more familiar to us from Thai menus, is here a colorful curry with a somewhat excessive garnish of nuts, raisins, egg, tomato and banana. Whew--no wonder the Raj got chased out of India! Among the more intelligent choices are delicious fried okra ( bhindi bhaji ), the dense onion fritters called onion bhaji and the fine, if generic, tandoor-baked breads.

The decor is as unassuming as the Ghazis themselves: glass tabletops, plain chairs and a tiny shop against one wall where some of the condiments that spice these dishes are sold.

The prices, bless them, seem to be nearly as low as they were during the restaurant's heyday in the mid-'80s, and service, although slow, is as friendly and personable as ever. Canard de Bombay, welcome back.

Where and When Location: Canard de Bombay, 11400 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Suggested Dishes: onion bhaji , $3; tandoori chicken 1/2, $9.50; egg curry, $6.25; chicken methi , $7. Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, dinner 5:30-11:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Price: Dinner for two, $18-$32. Parking lot. No alcohol. All major cards. Call: (818) 752-2879.

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