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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Off the Menu

July 11, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I'm sitting in an Indian restaurant in Hawthorne with a lemon and a bunch of green chiles dangling over my head. This is a good thing: Indians say lemon and chiles ward off evil.

They must be working; if the line that snakes out the door on weekdays during the lunch rush is any indication, Chicken Madras, just 9 months old, is doing exceedingly well.

The menus in most Indian restaurants read like carbon copies of each other, and this one is no exception. But there is a way around the monotony here: the chef's specials.

One day I have cheese tortellini (cheese tortellini!) in coral-colored makhani sauce, a spicy blend of tomatoes, ginger and ground cashews touched up with pomegranate seeds and fenugreek leaves. Another day I order angel hair pasta topped with shrimp and halibut in yet another rosy sauce. This one contains ajwain and cumin seeds.

There are buffets on Monday and Thursday nights. The larger Thursday night buffet, featuring bushels of shrimp boiled in Taj Mahal beer, includes more choices than most people could handle. Dipped in hot green chutney, the shrimp are so good you tend to forget the rest of the buffet. Unless, of course, you can't resist tandoori chicken, lamb seekh kebab, chicken korma, chicken curry, a bunch of vegetarian dishes, salads, pickles and so forth. All this for just $9.95. Monday night's smaller buffet is $5.95. Weekdays, the more modest lunch buffet costs only $4.95.

Addi de Costa, who runs the restaurant, is from Goa, the one-time Portuguese enclave on the west coast of India. Goans claim they are the best cooks in India, and their cuisine is naturally innovative in its blend of western and Indian concepts.

The name Chicken Madras has nothing to do with geography, though. There are few traces of South India on the menu. True, on weekends there are potato stuffed dosais, the big crisp crepes identified with the south, but they're just OK here. Dosais should be served right off the griddle, not allowed to stand until they soften. And the milky "Madras coffee" is not the same as the strong, mellow brew that turns visitors to South India into coffee addicts.

The name, it turns out, was chosen to attract customers who know little about India. The idea: Everyone likes chicken, and most Americans have heard of Madras curry powder, which you can buy it in supermarkets.

There's a chicken Madras on the menu here--it's the house specialty, of course. It's a slightly hot, slightly sweet dish combining chicken with vegetables in a sauce laced with coconut milk. I like it a lot.

The chef, Gurbachan Singh, is from Punjab, and one day I tasted the yellow dal that he makes for the Punjabi crowd. This simple, soupy home-style dish would make a great meal with tandoor bread and salad. Like the pasta dishes, it is not on the printed menu, so ask for yellow dal or order it in advance. The breads here are superior, and you can watch them being baked in the glassed-in tandoor room. One night, the kulcha came stuffed with shrimp.

Another night there were two chef's specials: scallop curry with garlic and prawns Kanyakumari--shrimp in a spicy mango-garlic sauce. I especially liked the shrimp. What gave the sauce definition and saved it from excessive sweetness was the use of underripe mangoes. On another occasion the kitchen experimented with mussels, and De Costa brought out samples. The mussels went well with Indian spices, which is not surprising because seafood is popular in India, acceptable even to some vegetarians.

A grilled vegetable platter comes to the table still sizzling from the tandoor. You get cauliflower, potatoes, the Indian cheese paneer reddened with tandoor spices and big chunks of tomato, onion and bell pepper. It's not on the menu, so you'll have to ask for the vegetables grilled in the tandoor.

If you see a sign at the salad section of the buffet that says aloo chat, take a large spoonful. Aloo means potato, but this is unlike any potato salad you've tasted, unless you've been to chat-happy Bombay. By the way, in India, chat is a snack, not a conversation. Chat masala involves such exotic seasonings as tangy dried mango powder, ground pomegranate seeds and sulfurous black salt. The taste is pleasing when subtly blended and sweetened with tamarind, and this is the dressing for the aloo chat.

The buffet includes a variety of pickles because Indians like them with their meals. The ferociously red vegetable looks scary, but it's just sweet carrot sticks, not awesomely hot. Tamarind chutney is mixed with dates, which gives it a jam-like taste.

The buffets end either with rice pudding or with gajjar ka halwa (carrot pudding). You're lucky if it's the latter. The carrots are cooked down until they are so red you would swear coloring was added. Cardamom, raisins, pistachios and cashews make the pudding fancy.

There's also an extravagant version of the dense Indian ice cream called kulfi. Fresh orange juice, cashews, pistachios and pine nuts are blended into the ice cream, which is frozen in orange shells and sliced into half moons.

Chicken Madras serves wine and several kinds of Indian beer, including Lal Toofan, a Pilsener beer bottled in the United Kingdom under license from a Calcutta firm. The name means red storm, like the sandy storms of the Rajasthan desert, which seems a rather pompous moniker for this unassuming light drink.

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WHERE TO GO

Chicken Madras, 4850 W. Rosecrans Ave., Hawthorne; (310) 675-5533. Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily. All major credit cards. Wine and beer. Takeout. Local delivery for large orders. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $25.

WHAT TO GET

Chicken Madras, tandoori vegetable platter, aloo chat, orange kulfi.

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