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A New Take on Indian : Encino's East India Grill is a standout with its colorful and creative chutneys, curries and tandoori cooking.

August 20, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Encino's East India Grill is an attractive little storefront cafe, with postmodern shapes jutting out from angles on the walls, lots of subdued earth tones and a makeshift canopy of billowy white cloth overhead that turns the interior into a sultan's tent. The moment you enter you will sense that the ethnic restaurant doldrums have temporarily become a tropical storm.

What initially grabs you is a myriad of aromas wafting out from the kitchen, the sound of blues artists such as B.B. King and Albert Collins in the background, and an overall sense of style. The initial East India Grill on La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles created quite a stir with its spate of colorful, exotic chutneys, creative naan breads and nouvelle Indian platters. This one deserves to create a similar stir in the San Fernando Valley. It is, by far, the most colorful Indian restaurant this area has seen.

A good deal of the credit must go to chef Mohammed Uddin, formerly chef at East India Grill's Los Angeles restaurant. Uddin is an East Bengali--from Bangladesh, not from the neighboring state of Bengal in India. As a result, condiments such as mustard seed oil, green coconut and tamarind, virtually unknown in the Mughlai kitchen, are treated with love and respect here. Uddin's sweet pungent tamarind chutney, for instance, is a murky, pulpy wonder, and the touch of mustard oil he adds to his lentil stews and rice dishes imparts a faintly mysterious flavor that other local Indian restaurants can only envy.

One irresistible starter is something the menu calls aloo papri chat , described as spicy potato salad in a crisp flour shell. Talk about understatement: These five or six finger-sized hors d'oeuvres are as much like potato salad as a lump of coal is like an engagement ring. The circular crisps (they look like miniature tostadas) are piled up with tiny diced potatoes, fresh peas and rice crisps, mingling with half a dozen spices, chopped cilantro and a yogurt sauce. This is a snack known on the other side of India from Bengal--look for chat vendors on Bombay's Chowpatty Beach.

Most of the main dishes--tandoori cooked meats, curries, rice dishes known as biryanis and vegetarian specialties--are brought out with a selection of colorful side dishes and condiments, all of which taste freshly made. I've already told you how I feel about the tamarind chutney, but I could just as easily make a meal out of the chunky, moss-colored mint chutney, the unctuous and penetratingly flavored tomato chutney, and rajmah , the hearty black- and kidney-bean mixture meant to be ladled onto basmati rice.

The only side dish to avoid is raita , a thinned-out yogurt sauce meant to cool the fires of Uddin's spicier dishes. This is the saltiest raita I've tasted anywhere (the one flaw this kitchen has, in fact, is a tendency to over-salt), almost painful to swallow and not quite the thing for soothing a suffering mouth. But apart from that, the food at East India Grill is uniformly excellent.

Definitely order the kitchen's steamy naan breads, though purists may blush at the idea of eating this delicious, taffy-textured bread topped with Parmesan cheese, one of Uddin's original ideas.

My table approached the idea uneasily but quickly lost all inhibition. The bread is barely brushed with a light coating of clarified butter and cheese, just enough to make it impossible to stop eating. (Uddin's other bread innovations, such as the garlic basil naan or the onion cilantro naan , are also terrific.)

When Uddin fires up his tandoor, of course, he isn't doing it just to bake bread. In addition to great tandoori chicken (the Valley's best), lean, juicy cashew-marinated cubes of lamb called reshmi kebab and oversized prawns still in the shell, rubbed red with tandoori spices, East India Grill cooks up great tandoori ribs. They are lean, meaty and so tender they fall off the bone, redolent of an unusual mango-soy sauce. Tuna tikka comes in large red cubes, flaky and firm.

There are many other standout dishes. The curries (a generic term Indian people disdain) are listed on the menu as green coconut, vindaloo , tikka masala , sagwala and saffron korma.

Green coconut is a light curry flavored with coconut milk and cilantro, excellent for fish. Tikka masala is a combination of tomatoes and cream, and a good match for chicken and farmer's cheese ( paneer ). Vindaloo is a fiery hot onion and potato dish from Goa, another place on India's west coast. It's perfect for lamb.

And do save room for the only two desserts on this menu. Kulfi is a nut-rich frozen confection fashioned from cream and boiled milk. Gulab jamun are golden cheese balls served warm in a sweet syrup, as soft and yielding textured a version as I've tasted anywhere.

Where and When Location: East India Grill, 18003 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Suggested dishes: aloo papri chat , $5.50; tandoori chicken, $9.95; tandoori ribs, $11.95; green coconut fish, $11.95; Parmesan naan , $2.50. Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily. Price: Dinner for two, $20-$35. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Call: (818) 343-1838.

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