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Delicate Scents of Balance Play Well for Mayur

Dishes are spiced in the best tradition of Indian home cooking, countering the notion of food that is routinely harsh.

November 07, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CORONA DEL MAR — "I never realized Indian food could be so delicate," a companion remarked as we were finishing an indulgent dinner at Mayur. "Usually what I get in an Indian restaurant is harsh."

She's right. The overwhelming majority of our Indian restaurants serve a rather coarse version of Mughlai food, the haute cuisine of northern India. They use too much cooking oil and throw the same spice mixture into every dish, making everything taste the same. Mayur, now in its 12th year, is an exception.

This intimate, elegant place--between an art movie house and a KFC--is Orange County's most consistent Indian restaurant. Most Indian restaurants will make your food mild, medium or hot on request. Mayur may be the only one where the food won't be bland if you don't specify a level of spiciness.

The woman in the sari who shows you to your table is Mayur's owner, Anju Kapoor, whose good taste shows in everything from the restaurant's soothing decor to the dishes she used to serve in her own home.

The chef, Dharam Singh, was originally brought to this country as Kapoor's personal cook. Perhaps that explains why many of these dishes don't taste like restaurant food. This is mild but colorful cooking, and no two dishes taste the same. They're individually spiced in the best tradition of Indian home cooking.

"Mayur" is the Hindi name of the peacock, a bird symbolizing virility and beauty in Indian culture, and Mayur is a beautiful place, full of beveled mirrors, carved wooden lanterns and sprays of flowers (peacock feathers are painted on the walls).

Dominating the entrance is a sandalwood sculpture of the half-human, half-elephant god Ganesh. A plush banquette lined with French Provincial chairs runs the length of the softly lit dining room. In the background, the drone of a sitar and hints of burning incense subtly tease the senses.

The appetizers are light and zesty, intended to give your palate a wake-up call. One is a true Indian street food, aloo chat--a dish of sauteed potato cubes, peas and chopped tomatoes and bell peppers in a spicy blend of herbs. Mayur makes a pyramid-shaped samosa of flaky pastry stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes and peas, good with the delicious house tamarind sauce.

Dahi wada, though eaten all over India, is hard to find in this country, and though it's not on the menu, you can request it here (it's airy balls of ground lentils swimming in a cool cucumber-yogurt sauce).

Lamb and chicken are the main meats at Mayur, but you might call ahead to see whether the restaurant has goat meat on hand. When it does, it serves a terrific goat dish, pieces of meat on the bone in a rich brown sauce, stewed until firm and tender, rather like the Kashmiri specialty roghan josh (usually made with lamb).

The best lamb dish here, hands down, is karahi lamb chops. The meat is coated in a yogurt spice mixture spiked with ginger, cumin, garlic, coriander and a touch of cinnamon and then cooked in a karahi (also known as a karhai), a round-bottomed skillet that looks like a heavy iron wok. The chops fall apart when cut. For fowl, try achari chicken, boneless pieces of light and dark meat simmered with salty Indian pickles and crushed red chiles.

*

Like most of our Indian restaurants, Mayur has a number of tandoori specialties cooked at ultra-high temperature in a cylindrical clay oven. The mixed tandoori platter makes a good introduction: seekh kebab (mixed ground lamb on skewers), shrimp kebab, tandoori chicken (cut into joints and colored a deep shade of red) and chicken tikka (white meat cut into big cubes). They're pleasant but not the restaurant's strength.

The list of vegetable dishes runs from creamed, spiced lentils in a thick gravy (dal makhani) to plain basmati rice, scented with cumin and saffron. Bharta is smoky roasted eggplant cooked in a cuminy broth of tomatoes and onions. Even better is mushroom mattar, a sweet, creamy dish of fresh peas and mushrooms in a sauce rich with ginger and garlic.

An off-menu entree sometimes available is makana paneer, chewy puffed millet mixed with farmer's cheese, tomatoes and onions. Millet is an important grain in India, though Indian restaurants rarely serve it in this country.

The menu lists a dozen breads, all baked to order, including the buttery flat naan, made by slapping a sheet of dough onto the side of the clay oven, and mint paratha, a flat, slightly doughy whole-wheat bread flecked with mint. Keema naan has a thin layer of minced lamb in the center. Ajwain paratha is studded with caraway seeds and other spices.

You can end a meal with a glass of masala tea, skillfully spiced with ginger and cardamom and enriched with condensed milk. It's meant to go with Indian sweets, such as kulfi, a dense homemade ice cream flavored with pistachio and almonds. Kheer is a chunky, cinnamon- and rosewater-flavored rice pudding topped with an edible silver leaf. Gulab jamun is warm balls of milk concentrated to a cheese-like solidity, cooked to a golden brown and bobbing around in syrup.

* MAYUR

* 2931 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar.

* (714) 675-6622.

* Mondays through Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sundays till 3 p.m.; 5:30-10 p.m. daily.

* All major cards accepted.

Mayur is moderately expensive. Appetizers are $3 to $10.95. Tandoori specialties are $10.95 to $20.95. Vegetable dishes are $7.95 to $12.95. Entrees are $11.95 to $15.95. The Sunday champagne brunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., is $14.95.

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