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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cast in Mughlai Mold : Khara Indian Oven serves familiar north Indian fare. One saving grace is the generous lunch buffet.

August 19, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

WOODLAND HILLS — Mughlai cuisine is the name of the hearty, meat-rich cookery that predominates in northern India. Nearly all the Indian restaurants in our area cook in this style, which derives from the court cuisine of the Mogul emperors.

(In this style ? What am I saying? It gets to be more than a similar style--something closer to a uniformity. A lot of our Indian restaurants cook so much alike you wonder what's the point of going to one rather than another.)

Khara Indian Oven, a new Punjabi-owned and -operated restaurant in Woodland Hills, is cast in this mold. It's in a large strip mall space that most recently housed Pompeii, an Italian restaurant. Before that it was a place called Russian House.

You could call this dining room comfortable, though the leather on the bar is worn and rough, a veteran of the restaurant wars. Indian artifacts and tapestries add proper mood, even if the new owners keep this place nearly as dark as the Russians did when they were in residence.

Punjab-born owner Arjan Singh Khara hails from the city of Amritsar, the spiritual center of India's Sikhs and home of their celebrated Golden Temple. Khara was food service manager at the Sikh temple in Hollywood for seven years. This is his first restaurant venture.

At times, the inexperience shows. The staff is hearty and friendly, but it's hard to be quite so positive about what the kitchen does. The menu is virtually the same as those at Anarkali, India's Tandoori, Taste of India and other Indian restaurants in the vicinity. (If you really crave something different, head for Paru's in Northridge, which serves exotic south Indian meatless cuisine.) In other words, Khara serves familiar north Indian fare, cautious with the spices.

One saving grace at Khara Indian Oven is the lunch buffet. Many Indian restaurants have such buffets, and this one is incredibly generous at a mere $4.95. For that you get five vegetable dishes, salad, an appetizer called onion bhaji , tandoori chicken, a curry dish, hot naan bread from the tandoor and a fine, fluffy rice pilaf. The bhaji is particularly good. This round, puffy Indian cousin of the onion loaf you get at Tony Roma's consists of shredded onions covered with a thin, spicy batter of garbanzo flour and deep-fried to crispness.

At dinner, I'd begin with one of the appetizers cooked in the restaurant's tandoor oven. Ginger kebab turns out to be chicken marinated in yogurt and ginger, served with a refreshing mint sauce. I like the restaurant's seekh kebab as well. It's like a minced lamb sausage roasted on a skewer, crumbly textured and pungent with onion and garlic.

Pass on fish tikka , though; these skewered chunks of garlic- and herb-marinated mahi-mahi come from the tandoor with a tired texture. Lamb tikka might be even harder to swallow. Our lamb was tough and tasted pretty tired itself.

The entrees are mostly based on chicken or lamb, with a few seafoods thrown in for good measure. Lamb karahi is a good, if rather buttery, dish of spiced cubed lamb cooked in the Indian utensil called karahi , a sort of iron wok. By rights, chicken vindaloo should be chicken and potatoes stewed in a blistering-hot sauce, but even though we requested ours extra hot, the kitchen made it mild.

Chana masala is the best of the vegetable dishes--fat, mildly spiced garbanzo beans in a fragrant, seductively heavy brown sauce. There are also passable spinach, eggplant and lentil dishes, but they lack strong flavors and they're spiced almost identically. This kitchen flavors most vegetables (meats, too) with thick, pureed sauces apparently based on a single masala (spice mixture) dominated by ginger, clove and cumin. It's a nice masala , but after just one or two of these dishes, the palate wearies.

The breads are unfailingly delicious, however, and you could making a meal of them with the restaurant's savory, carrot chutney. A simple paratha (flaky unleavened whole wheat bread) becomes a sophisticated treat when eaten with a spoonful of dark green mint chutney. Keema paratha is a hot bread, fresh from the tandoor, stuffed with spiced ground lamb and rubbed with butter.

There's even "pizza," made with a puffy naan- type crust in a pizza oven bought by Khara specifically for his restaurant. The kitchen will throw one together with cheese, chicken, lamb, even pepperoni, and embellish it with vegetable toppings such as onions, peppers and olives.

They could have named the restaurant Pompeii Indian Oven, after the last tenant. But then, who'd believe it?

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Khara Indian Oven, 22864 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Suggested dishes: Lunch buffet, $4.95; keema paratha , $2.75; chana masala , $4.95; karahi lamb, $8.95.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $17-$32. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 225-7710.

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