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At Dil, You'll Find Indian Food With a Heart

September 02, 1993|MAX JACOBSONBD Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Dil is Hindi for heart. It's a good name for this big, airy restaurant.

Located in a corner of El Toro's Saddleback Valley Plaza complex, it looks like nothing more than a particularly classy version of the usual Indian restaurant.

On a site that was once home to a restaurant called India Palace, new owners have given the clapboard walls a fresh coat of white paint and installed plush leather booths. Dil is a maharajah's palace of wood, shimmering glass mirrors and Indian paintings, where colorful, aromatic food is served by stiffly efficient waiters.

But Dil's logo is a little red heart, a symbol that crops up often on the restaurant's large, Mughlai-style menu. A heart indicates the dish conforms to guidelines set by the American Heart Assn. for diets low in fat, cholesterol and sodium.

That's a surprise because, like the vast majority of our ever-growing number of Indian restaurants, Dil serves the sumptuous, meat-rich cuisine of north India. Another surprise is the overall quality of the fare.

For that, credit chef Biharilal Alobalia, a native Indian who has plied his trade all over the world.

Chef Alobalia cuts a dashing figure in his whites. With his distinguished bearing and silver-gray handlebar mustache, he looks more like a statesman than a chef. Orange County aficionados of Mughlai cuisine probably remember him from Newport's Royal Khyber, though his resume includes establishments in New York, San Francisco and his hometown of Bombay, where he served as head chef at the original Gaylord's.

Alobalia's cooking is particularly lively, perhaps due to the fact that he grinds many (though not all) spices to order for use in individual dishes.

He also varies his masalas (a diversity of spice mixtures that we often lump together in the term "curry") more radically than most local Indian chefs. For a dish such as alu chat, Alobalia employs tamarind and mint. His green masala, something like an Indian-style chili verde and wonderful with chicken, is based on cilantro, ginger, mint and garlic.

You'll want to start any meal here with one or two of the menu's snacks. Think of alu chat as evolved potato salad. It's essentially chunks of potato with cooked onion and garbanzo beans, buoyed up by a sensational sauce that gets its scarlet blush from the tamarind seed. Indians prefer it cold, and it makes a great picnic food.

Another great snack is chicken pakora-- delicious, but (pay attention, knee-jerk chicken orderers) possibly the least heart-smart thing on this menu.

It consists of small, nearly shapeless pieces of boneless chicken, deep-fried in spiced lentil batter. I'd say they are around five times heavier than Japanese tempura, and at least twice as tasty.

Tandoori meats, on the other hand, are scrupulously trim and spare, as presented on metal platters sizzling with shredded onions and fragrant with fresh lemon. This time it is a slow marinade of paprika, yogurt and tomato puree that gives these clay-oven meats their reddish tint, but the flavors come more from a seasoning of ginger, garlic and onion. Try lamb tikka , tender cubed lamb with a grainy, fall-apart texture.

Fish tikka , also in cubes, is another interesting choice. Alobalia uses swordfish instead of the more usual--and relatively insipid--mahi-mahi, and the result is a robust success.

Leavened flat breads ( naan ) are a must with meats roasted in the tandoor oven, and Dil's are both creative and pleasing. Dil special naan is flecked with reds and greens like Christmas candy, the reds coming from finely shredded chicken, the greens from crushed pistachio.

Garlic naan is perked up with the surprise addition of fennel seed, which balances the garlic with unexpected sweetness.

Kima naan is made the hard way. Lesser chefs sprinkle a seasoned lamb topping onto partially cooked dough before finishing the bread on the side of the tandoor. Chef Alobalia stuffs the whole bread with a thin, flat sheet of lamb, turning it into a spicy meat pie.

The best main dishes at Indian restaurants are usually variations on vegetarian themes or meat dishes made from lamb or chicken.

One dish, imam bayildi , has a name pilfered from Turkish cuisine. Dil's version, which bears only a casual resemblance to its Turkish namesake, is composed of sliced eggplant and potato sizzling with tomato, garlic, ginger and onion. Another wonderful vegetarian offering is malai kofta , little nutty "meatballs" in cream sauce. Think of them as spherical veggie-burgers, and bear in mind that they are enormously filling.

Green chicken, a distinctive dish best ordered mildly spiced, employs the cilantro and mint masala described above. (Consult your waiter to specify the degree of heat.)

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