YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cuisine Fit for an Emperor : Despite toned-down spicing, the Mughlai food at new India's Tandoori in Valencia is fresh and honest.

July 16, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson writes restaurant reviews every week in Valley Life.

Mughlai cuisine derives from the rich, meaty, subtly spiced court cookery of the Moghul emperors of India. (Mughlai, Moghul, Mongol--it's all the same word.) Most Indian restaurants in greater Los Angeles claim to cook Mughlai food, but few do justice to it.

Somi Rehil aims to change all that. He's the owner of two bang-up successful restaurants named India's Tandoori, one in Los Angeles and another in Tarzana, and has just added a third in a Valencia complex that is already home to a good upscale Mexican cafe named Pacifico Grille and a multiplex cinema. I'm told that the location has attracted lots of curious customers.

They're wise to look in. Despite toned-down, often downright muted spicing, the food at India's Tandoori is fresh and honest. This menu is crammed with the usual Indian restaurant selection of meat curries, rice dishes and vegetarian dishes, but the things that really jump out at you come from the clay tandoor oven that gives India's Tandoori its name: game hen, rack of lamb and several fine, steamy breads. They are just plain great.

This is basically a modest, comfy sort of restaurant. The lighting is dim because of the window shades, ostensibly installed to offset the glare outside. Tables sport funny floral tablecloths, glass tops and tacky silk flowers in vases. The walls are graced with traditional hand-embroidered Indian silk paintings. Only an enormous copper cappuccino machine looks out of place. It must have come with the property--I mean, who orders cappuccino with eggplant bhartha ? I'll have a cup of masala tea, thank you.

The tandoori appetizers acquit themselves nobly. Seekh kebab is a sort of skinless lamb sausage roasted on a skewer, crumbly and pungent with onion and garlic. Chicken tikka is cherry-red with tandoori spices. An order consists of four or five huge, soft chunks of dry-cooked chicken, and it's the perfect foil for onion kulcha , a partially leavened tandoori bread studded with shredded onion.

The tandoori chef does get somewhat carried away sometimes. The restaurant is introducing a tandoori pizza called mozzarella masala-- more of that fusion cuisine we hear about. This consists of a tandoori naan , serving as good bready pizza crust, topped with plenty of cheese and your choice of tandoori meats: shrimp, lamb or chicken. For tomato sauce, the kitchen substitutes a sweet onion sauce. The result: a snack that I would call downright bizarre.

Among the appetizers that don't come from the tandoor, the fish pakora could be improved upon. I like the lentil flour breading and light frying technique, but I quibble with the choice of mahi mahi, a frozen, slightly tired-tasting fish used because of its firm flesh. Fresh swordfish would make the dish a classic.

You could call vegetable zalfrazi a New Age Indian entree: a dry-spiced and almost oil-free mixture of cubed paneer cheese, cauliflower, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and onions. At $12.95, tandoori rack of lamb is the most expensive dish on the menu and worth it. The four charred chops, served surrounded by onions, tomatoes and lemon wedges, are extra tender, and the tandoori flavors are positively symphonic. The tandoori game hen beats the tandoori chicken in tenderness and flavor (ask for it spicy and you get a nicely flavored crust on the crisp skin), though for variety, you could try chicken vindaloo , a blistering-hot stew of chicken meat, potatoes and sauce.

Malai kofta --mock meatballs made from grated vegetables served in a rich cream gravy--ranks with the zalfrazi as the best in the otherwise uninspiring vegetable list. I'd also give pretty high marks to the channa masala, mildly spiced garbanzo beans in a fragrant sauce.

Don't forget to order some tandoori bread. A simple layered whole wheat bread called paratha becomes a sophisticated treat when eaten with a spoonful of dark green mint chutney. Indian desserts can be cloying, but not the ones here. The best is ras malai . Think of it as the world's best cottage cheese ball, in a rich sweet cream and almond sauce. The pungent, creamy mango ice cream is perfect for one of Valencia's hot summer evenings.

Clever folk, those Moghuls. Or Mughlais, whatever.

Where and When Location: India's Tandoori, 23360 Valencia Blvd., Valencia. Suggested Dishes: Tandoori game hen, $3.95 (half), $7.95 (full); rack of lamb, $12.95; vegetable zalfrazi , $4.95; malai kofta , $6.50. Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Price: Dinner for two, $20 to $35. Beer and wine. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Call: (805) 288-1200.

Los Angeles Times Articles