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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Mozzarella Masala

April 08, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Sheesh Mahal, the birthplace of the Indian pizza, is an elegantly appointed place in a mid-town strip mall, all tapestries and archways, soft light and gleaming metal plates. The local Indian community likes Sheesh Mahal because it is probably the most authentic Punjabi-style place within several miles of the Pico-Fairfax Indian shopping area; Westsiders like the place because they cheerfully prepare dishes without butter or cream upon request, also because it is good and cheap. Though it profits from the cross-cultural fertilization that has brought us the pastrami burrito, the fajita pita, the spaghetti in kimchi beurre blanc , Sheesh Mahal functions pretty much as a traditional Indian restaurant.

Indian pizza is not a euphemism like "Armenian pizza" (the lamb-tomato bread lamajune ) or "Japanese pizza" (the frittata-like okonomiyaki ), but an actual sort of pizza-pizza, partially baked in a charcoal-fired tandoor, topped, and then finished in a conventional oven (one suspects that the mozzarella cheese might char immediately in the tandoor's intense heat). It's no weirder really than the Peking-duck pizzas and Mexican cactus pizzas that you can find at any number of Southland chain restaurants and is far better done. The pizza is about the size of an old Louis Jourdan 10-inch, lightly smoky, blistered at the edges and with a consistency that ranges from a brittle, cracker-like crunchiness to a crisp-edged chewiness, depending on the day and the chef.

If a Spago lamb-sausage pizza is like a Whitney Houston ballad, brassy, powerful and impeccably recorded, a Sheesh Mahal pizza with, say, tandoor-baked shrimp, bell pepper and tomato is lush and supple as the late Marvin Gaye: maybe a little underproduced, but bursting with subtext. The pizza topped with tandoori chicken sings with the bittersweet spiciness of the tart chile sambal that appears where you might expect tomato sauce; the little cubes of chicken serve almost as comforting islets of blandness. All the pizzas, even the vegetarian one, are garnished with cute, little rounds of California black olives, a homey touch.

It's less surprising that an Indian restaurant would have great pizza--tandoor-baked flat-breads have always been renowned--than that nobody has thought of trying it before. It's also not surprising that the people at Sheesh Mahal would be a little embarrassed about the pizza, as if its existence were too undignified for a restaurant of this stature. The pizza is not actually on the printed menu, for example, but on a typewritten slip of paper stapled to it.

"Sorry it's taking so long," apologized a waiter. "We had to go up the street and find an Italian guy to make the pizza."

Unfortunately, after the pizza, Sheesh Mahal is only a better-than-average version of the Punjabi-style Indian restaurants that seem to stud one out of three Westside mini-malls. Here are the usual tandoori chicken, shrimp, lamb, crusted with spices and then roasted over charcoal; here are the curried spinach with chunks of fresh cheese, the vegetables simmered in a creamy cashew sauce, the ultra-spicy lamb vindaloo . There is a nice mushroom thing zapped with ginger and garlic; there are unusual fried nut-vegetable capsules, malal kofta , softened with tomatoes and cream. The breads-- chapati , paratha , the inevitable garlic naan --are better than fine.

It's probably one of the dozen best Indian restaurants in L.A. But if Sheesh Mahal lacks the manic, almost improvisational qualities of the regional vegetarian restaurants, or the intensity of Ashoka the Great, or the luxe of the Beverly Hills palaces, or the possibilities of transcendence contained within every meal at, say, Rajdoot . . . those places don't serve pizza. And Spago doesn't own a tandoor.

Sheesh Mahal

5947 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 936-2050. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. Mastercard and Visa accepted. $4.95 lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $13-$20.

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