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Shehnai: Welcome Addition With a Warm Feeling


BREA — Shehnai is the name of an Indian oboe traditionally played at weddings. You hear its mellow, nasal tone constantly at the restaurant named Shehnai. The background music is nice, a soothing medley of taped ragas.

This restaurant, inside the Brea Marketplace, is pretty. It's a glittery room mostly done in reds and whites, from the red carpet and white tablecloths to the paintings and musical instruments on the walls. The dining area seems vast--an illusion partly due to mirrors on one wall.

I'd request a booth instead of a table, mostly to avoid the eccentric, post-modern chairs, which might have dropped from a spacecraft. The back consists of three arching black rods, the seat cushion barely adequate for a fasting supermodel.

So far, so good, and, as long as you aren't expecting anything brilliant, Shehnai's cooking will be comfortably adequate.

It serves the familiar, heavy Mughlai fare of northern India. The good news is that the ingredients are fresh, and the dishes are distinctively spiced--this isn't one of the places that uses one all-purpose curry mix. The bad news is you'll have to beg if you want anything hot and spicy. Even then, I wouldn't give one rupee for your chances.

It doesn't bother me much that every dish here resembles dishes at other Southland Indian restaurants. In northeastern Orange County, where ethnic restaurants are scarce, Shehnai is a welcome addition, and the place has been busy during its first six months. One night I sat near an English-born couple from La Habra. "I grew up with authentic Indian cooking," said the man, "but it's nice to have an Indian restaurant so close by."

All of us were doing appetizers. Four come together in mixed hors d'oeuvres: chicken tikka, seekh kebab, a samosa and vegetable pakoras. The first two, cooked in the restaurant's clay oven, are bite-sized pieces of chicken and aromatic cylinders of minced lamb, respectively. The samosa is a little triangular pie filled with mashed potatoes, nicely scented with fennel.

The English couple and I liked those first three, but none of us much fancied the pakoras, which are rather heavy little fritters of onion and cauliflower, deep-fried in garbanzo batter.

The pakoras--and almost everything else--improve with a hit of mint or tamarind chutney or, better yet, with a dab of the off-menu achar, an oily pickle of limes, eggplants and mangoes.

Nothing can save the cheese pakoras, leaden pieces of Indian cheese fried in tired, oily batter. As for Aloo chat (literally, "potato snack"), a bowl of diced cubed potatoes mixed with peas and cashews, it's tasty, but about as Indian as apple pie.

Shehnai does better with meats cooked in the clay oven. The one that impresses me most is tangri kebab, tender chicken drumsticks marinated in yogurt and ginger, perfect with the refreshing mint chutney.

I also like the tandoori lamb chops, even if the kitchen does get a little overeager with the red food coloring. You get three tender, meaty chops that must weigh half a pound each, crusted with spices and served on a bed of sizzling onions. The meat is great when stuffed into a hot wedge of garlic naan bread.

For its fish tikka, the restaurant uses chunks of mahi-mahi marinated in garlic and herbs, because the firm flesh doesn't fall apart in the tandoor. The fish isn't half bad, but it lacks the finesse and firm texture of fresh swordfish, the best fish for tandoori ovens. I had high hopes for tandoori bateer, but they were disappointing. The quail (you get three) were nicely spiced on the skin, but underneath, the meat had no fragrance, no gamy flavor.

Many of the entrees, in the Mughlai tradition, are cooked in rich tomato- or cream-based sauces.

One of the best is lamb saag, an amazingly filling dish of braised lamb in a spinach gravy.

When the waiter asks you how spicy you want your dish, it's not because there's a wide range of hotness--pretty much everything is mild here.

Ordinarily, the hottest dish on an Indian menu will be vindaloo, a vinegary and very spicy dish from southwestern India. Shehnai's vindaloos, made with either chicken or lamb and brimming with chunks of potato, are not going to make anybody raise a sweat.

The best vegetable dish is aloo gobhi, a dry-braised potato-and-cauliflower casserole. It is the least oily of the vegetable entrees, and the spice mixture, heavy on the ginger, is the most distinctive. Bhindi masala is another good one: dry-stewed okra cooked with a masala (spice mixture) dominated by cumin and ginger.

Korma refers to a process of cooking in a cream sauce with nuts, and the vegetarian navratan korma on this menu is all bland, excessively rich sauce. Bharta, roasted eggplant sauteed with tomatoes and onions, is also excessively rich; it leaves an unappetizing residue of orange-colored oil all over the plate.


The kitchen manages to shine for dessert.

This is one of the few Indian restaurants that bothers to make the Bengali sweet ras malai, sweet patties of white cheese in a rich pistachio cream sauce. And don't miss the gulab jamun (hot, golden balls of condensed milk in a lightly scented syrup) or kheer (a creamy rice pudding made from thickened, boiled milk). These are about the most authentically prepared Indian dishes here.

Shehnai is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.95 to $9.95. Tandoori items are $5.95 to $13.95. Main dishes are $5.95 to $14.95. Desserts are $1.95 to $2.50.


* 705 E. Birch St., Brea.

* (714) 990-8989.

* Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

* All major cards.

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