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VALLEY WEEKEND | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Vegetarian Fare in Spotlight at Samata

The bright, airy cafe emphasizes fresh ingredients and intelligent use of spices.

August 01, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Samata," the Hindi word for balance, implies spiritual and physical perfection. In choosing this name, Samata Vegetarian restaurant has set a high standard for itself; achieving the delicate balance that makes food nurturing to both body and spirit.

I have actually felt that balance each time I've finished a meal at Samata. This is clean, fresh-tasting Indian food, cooked with a minimum of oil, judicious sprinklings of spice and an obvious degree of intelligence.

Perhaps no country on Earth has elevated vegetarian cooking to an art form more than India. Remember that when you eat at Samata, which (unlike a lot of our Indian vegetarian restaurants) presents the vegetarian cookery of the northern part of the country.

The feeling of well-being begins immediately with the appearance of this bright, spotless cafe, its soothing, salmon-colored walls sparsely decorated with Indian paintings. Many of our north Indian restaurants are dark, musty places, heavy with the scents of oil and spice. Not Samata. It has a fresh herbal scent.

Before the food arrives, you're plied with a dish of condiments: a moss-green mint chutney, a deep, reddish-brown tamarind chutney and a carrot pickle, which gets its mustard-yellow color from a healthy dose of turmeric. It is the freshness that makes these chutneys noteworthy. Too many Indian restaurants make chutneys in large batches and keep them around until they literally begin to ferment.

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Order some of the delicious baked lentil wafers called pappadum to dip in the chutneys. Now you should be ready to navigate this unusual menu.

Beware--some of the appetizers can fill you up if you aren't careful. One is alu tikki, a golden-brown slice of crunchy fried potato that looks like a little spaceship. It's stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes and peas.

Another is the glorious snack called papadi chat--a bowl of garbanzos, diced potatoes and fried flour crisps, mingled with yogurt and the mint and tamarind chutneys.

The menu's shakiest section is its soups. Sabzi soup is pumpkin, carrots and potatoes pureed to a baby-food texture. Oddly, the palak (spinach) soup is the spiciest dish I've tried at Samata; it literally burned the roof of my mouth. The spicy mulligatawny is lentil based, but the eight legume dishes (dal) on this menu are all more interesting.

Moong dal is mung beans flavored with a simple, pleasing masala of garlic and ginger. The heartier urad/rajma are the Indian equivalent of black and kidney beans, slow cooked with spices and finished on top of the stove. Cuddy is an intriguing dish where spiced garbanzo flour fritters swim in a mustard yellow gravy made from lentils and yogurt.

Lobhia, black-eye peas cooked to a soupy consistency with cumin, ginger and garlic, are not like any black-eyes your Mississippi grandmother has ever cooked.

Dals are usually eaten with rice for nutritional balance, and Samata affords a few interesting rice options. My choice would be shahi pullao, mixed with farmer's cheese and fresh peas, which tastes like the Italian rice balls arancini and is almost filling enough to make a meal on its own.

Ditto for biryani, an elaborate preparation that combines rice with clarified butter, mixed vegetables, raisins and blanched almonds.

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The main dishes are either austere or indulgent. Petha is rather mildly spiced; its chunks of squash bathed in the afterglow, as it were, of ginger, cumin and black pepper.

Saag is mustard greens with whole garlic cloves, chopped tomatoes and crushed ginger. Bhindi masala, stir-fried okra, comes in a light spicy tomato sauce. If it's richness you want, go for bhara baigan: two Japanese eggplants stuffed with a vegetable mixture like the one used for making the vegetarian "meatballs" malia kofta, the whole thing blanketed with a thick brown vegetable gravy.

Samata has a tandoor, but uses it only for a tempting array of tandoori breads, such as naan and roti, and one rather dry vegetable kebab. Don't miss the refreshingly sweet mint lassi, a yogurt-based drink, and the good Indian desserts: condensed milk balls in cream gravy (rasmalai) and homemade pistachio ice cream (pista kulfi).

At lunch, Samata offers an eight-course steam-table buffet, well worth it at $5.50.

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DETAILS

* WHAT: Samata Vegetarian restaurant.

* WHERE: 12321 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

* WHEN: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $18-$29. Suggested dishes: alu tikki, $2.50; urad/rajma, $4.95; shahi pullao, $4.95; bhara baigan, $6.60, pista kulfi, $2.25.

* FYI: No alcohol. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa.

* CALL: (818) 761-7696.

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