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An Indian Notion

Chef Pradeep Kumar brings an understanding of Western tastes to his homeland's fare with dishes that shun butter, ghee and cream.

June 19, 1997|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Step into Pradeep's in Santa Monica and you know at once you're not in the usual Indian restaurant.

Prints by Monet and Van Gogh decorate the walls along with traditional Indian art. Customers munch on organic baby greens with balsamic dressing. Sauces form stenciled designs on oversized plates. And the menu board outside promises "low, low fat" cooking.

It's just the sort of Indian restaurant that fits on Montana Avenue with its smart collection of boutiques and cafes.

Owner-chef Pradeep Kumar, who is from New Delhi, says he wants to "give a new edge" to Indian food. This he has done by creating interesting dishes devoid of butter, ghee and cream.

Kumar formerly cooked at the Century Plaza Hotel and Tower and at hotels in India and Europe, where he specialized in French and Italian as well as Indian cooking. This explains the European art and his familiarity with Western tastes. "My exposure to other cooking forced me to do something light," he says.

Open almost a year, Pradeep's is a tiny, casual place, more like a fast-food shop. The few small tables inside look through windows trimmed with Mogul arches to more tables outside. The only waitress is Kumar's wife, Ranjana.

The restaurant lacks a tandoor oven but produces tandoori food anyway in a steel restaurant oven. The naan bread is light and tender, not undercooked and soggy as can happen when a thick wad of dough is baked too briefly in a tandoor.

A signature dish, tandoori salmon with baby greens over cilantro mashed potatoes, gets a brilliant dash of color from the addition of red tandoori seasonings to rosy salmon.

Sliced chicken breast, tinted tandoori red, comes with organic greens, cucumber and tomato in a salad that makes a wonderful light lunch. The greens are tossed with cilantro-lemon dressing. Balsamic vinegar and tamarind are drizzled over the top.

Pradeep's answer to the overpowering, fat-laden sauces that characterize much Indian restaurant food is a roasted eggplant sauce with curry seasoning. You can have this with salmon, shrimp, lamb or chicken. Whatever you choose comes ringed with basmati rice and accompanied by a green salad and the house chutneys.

This customer-friendly restaurant takes good care of vegetarians. Some of its best dishes are meatless, like a salad that plays the crispness of spinach against soft, spicy channa dal, a legume that resembles yellow split peas. It's topped with a stack of slivered naan bread.

Another is the appetizer aloo ki tikki, potato cakes seasoned with ginger, chiles, cilantro and ajwain, which is a spice from the thyme family. Crisp pappadums sprout from the cakes and tracings of tamarind and mint chutneys surround them. Onion-spinach pakoras (fritters) come wrapped in thin naan bread and sliced in short lengths. They're an interesting contrast of textures, soft on the outside and crisp inside.

The two soups, carrot with coriander and roasted eggplant with spinach and garlic, are vegetarian. And there is a vegetarian thali that includes two vegetable dishes, lentils, rice, bread, salad and raita. You choose the vegetables from a list that includes saag (spinach and mustard greens) with cauliflower, saag with potatoes or Indian cheese (paneer), peas with paneer and so forth.

There's a vegetarian biryani, but non-vegetarians should try the lamb biryani, which is sensational. It's greaseless and light, better than many a biryani I've eaten in India. An Indian friend who usually avoids red meat raved about it too.

Pradeep's menu speaks the lingo of L.A. foodies. Raita is "yogurt salsa" and biryanis are "Indian style risotto." Chicken is mostly "boneless, skinless." A curry sauce is "infused" with fresh herbs and spices. Pappadums are "lentil crackers," and paratha rolls are "Indian style burritos."

No alcohol is served, but there's a wine shop a few doors away. Desserts are standards like rice pudding and mango and pistachio ice creams. The pistachio is worth a try. It's saffron-flavored, made elsewhere but according to Kumar's formula.

BE THERE

Pradeep's, 1405 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 393-1467. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. No alcohol. Takes most major credit cards. Lot and street parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, $20 to $30. What to get: Tandoori chicken salad, lamb biryani, Pradeep's tandoori marinated salmon; spinach, lentil and naan salad, aloo ki tikki.

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