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More Than Currying Favor

Chef Santokh Singh has surfaced in Pasadena, where he is reworking his magic at the All India Cafe.


Sometimes, you've just got to rave. An inconspicuous Pasadena spot with the nothing name All India Cafe is one of the two best Indian restaurants to open in years.

In the last eight years, to be exact, because the other was Bombay Cafe over on the Westside in Sawtelle, where All India's chef, Santokh Singh, used to work. So the news here is really the same news as at Bombay Cafe (the menus are just about identical): Instead of the heavy, repetitiously spiced Mughlai curries served in most Indian restaurants, All India has light, crunchy snacks and brightly flavored dishes you can actually tell apart.

This is a modest place--despite several visits, I have no memory at all of what it looks like--but the food is classy. At most of our Indian restaurants, you'd never know that saffron is a traditional Indian spice, but All India is generous with it. The buttery tomato sauce on the chicken makhni had so much saffron aroma I found myself vaguely thinking of it as a French or Italian seafood dish.

You definitely want to start with appetizers here. The two snappiest ones build on crisp little wafers topped with potato chunks mixed with a couple of chutneys (tamarind flavor predominating). Sev puri crowns this with orange fried vermicelli made from chickpea flour, bhel puri with a mound of puffed rice. Sev puri is handsomer and wins in the crunchiness category, but bhel puri seems to be the one people can't stop eating.

The other appetizers (apart from the only mildly interesting potato pancakes called aloo tikki and uttapam, a sort of chewy South Indian pizza served with coconut chutney) are the familiar potato-stuffed samosa and deep-fried vegetable pakoras. The onion pakora is a good one, though. Think of Tony Roma's fried onions accompanied by a sweet tomato sauce spiked with turmeric.

There are tandoori entrees, naturally, and they're good and charcoaly (the chicken tikka particularly so, and for once the tandoori chicken is not dyed red with beet juice). There's a spice-crusted shish kebab and a tandoori platter with three kinds of meat. You can get chicken on a thali platter, that shiny metal Indian TV dinner tray, with lentils, cucumber salad, vegetables and tandoori bread.

But this is one place where the non-tandoori entrees are even more tempting. The "frankies," for instance: curried lamb, chicken or cauliflower, rolled up in a flour tortilla, burrito fashion, and garnished with crisp, brightly colored chunks of pickled carrots and cauliflower.

Tikka masala is one of several dishes that are cooked in the tandoor and then stewed in a spicy sauce, in this case a cream sauce. It's the closest thing here to the usual Mughlai curry, but the spicing is a bit more lively. There are straightforward curries, and good ones. Ask for them hot, by the way, and the kitchen complies enthusiastically (a good argument for ordering one of those 22-ounce bottles of Indian beer).

The curry of the day is always worth investigating. One day it was chicken dhansak, a variation on that cliche of the London-style Indian menu, lamb dhansak: meat stewed with lentils and vegetables. It was a little on the sweet side but lighter on its feet than most dhansaks.

For my money, the best thing here is Bombay chicken, which started showing up at Bombay Cafe as a special a couple of years ago. The chicken is poached with onions and spices and then stir-fried with mango powder, coriander and cayenne. (This much the menu admits, but it doesn't explain a sweet aroma like coconut.) It's a fascinating dish, more tender than tandoori chicken, more fragrant than a curry.

There's a large selection of tandoor breads, of course, including a version that encloses a thin patty of spicy ground lamb. It's worth ordering a selection of the fresh-tasting sweet chutneys (the mango, mixed fruit and coconut varieties are more vivid than the tomato chutney).

Instead of the usual heavy Indian sweets based on ultra-condensed milk and syrup, the dessert menu limits itself to kulfi, kheer and gajar halwa. These translate as ice cream, rice pudding and carrot pudding, but only the ice cream is what you expect. You have a choice of pistachio (very rich, flavored with cardamom), ginger (fairly intense) and mango (real fruit flavor) kulfis.

The rice pudding is like a bowl of sweetened cream with cardamom and ground rice in it--a surprisingly light and clean-tasting kheer. And gajar halwa, usually a heavy, buttery carrot paste, is light, crumbly and not too sweet, with a lively citrus aroma.

This may not be news in Sawtelle, but it is in Pasadena, and in fact nearly everywhere else.


All India Cafe, 39 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena, (818) 440-0309. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Street parking. Visa, MasterCard. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $19-$39. What to get: Bhel puri, sev puri, tandoori chicken tikka, Bombay chicken, lamb frankie, ginger kulfi, gajar halwa.


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