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Indian Delights, Fresh From the Tandoor

Brentwood's Clay Pit offers sophisticated, northern-region fare that's worth getting fired up about.

November 19, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those lucky Westsiders. They've got the Clay Pit, which drew Indian food lovers to the Koreatown area for eight years. A few months ago, Sunil Vora closed down his restaurant in the Chapman Market building (and a mini-branch in a Figueroa Street hotel) and moved it to Brentwood.

The new room is not kitschy-Indian but sophisticated and spare. Warm, sandy-colored walls alternate with cool, gray spaces. Planters set into the alcoves look like shadowy artworks of stone and earth, with plants emerging from the top. Only images of the gods Shiva and Ganesha indicate that this is an Indian restaurant.

Though the Clay Pit's menu is the standard north Indian sort, certain dishes are exceptional. It's hard to cook seafood in a tandoor oven without drying it out, but the tandoori sea bass, in a curry sauce with an unexpected sweet taste, is ethereally light. Sea bass is the only fish at the moment, but there are reportedly plans to introduce salmon and swordfish.

Tandoori steak must be a nod to Westside tastes. Although some Hindus eat beef, it's not traditionally acceptable. As if in retribution, my steak emerged from the tandoor overdone, lacking the dark-brown crust that makes grilled steak so appealing and overpowered by an acidic marinade.

The rack of lamb, on the other hand, is an interesting innovation. Its marinade contains fresh rosemary (a totally European herb), and it comes in a basically Indian sauce dosed with Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce; not so odd when you consider how popular Chinese food is in India. There are also tandoori pork chops marinated with yogurt, garlic, ginger and other spices.

Paneer bhajia is a delightful dish that does not appear on the menu, but by all means ask for it. It is a grated Indian cheese sauteed with onions and green peas, simply seasoned with cumin and turmeric.

The dal makhani is so rich I felt guilty eating as much as I did. No need for guilt, though. The creamy texture comes from cooking channa dal, an Indian lentil that looks like a large yellow split pea, along with kidney beans and black lentils (urad dal). The fast-cooking channa dal disintegrates to a puree while the others retain their shape, giving a creamy impression. Onion, garlic, ginger and tomatoes add lots of flavor.

A standout among the vegetables is okra (bhindi). It's sliced fine, fried and then combined with onions and spices. The usual vegetable dishes are here--bengan bharta (eggplant), sag (spinach), gobhi (cauliflower). Sauteed mushrooms are new, though, and so is papdi chat, an appetizer of crisp whole-wheat pastries with potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt and tamarind sauce.

The restaurant has a long wine list, with most bottles priced from $15 to $35. Matching wine to Indian food takes some thought, because the range of flavors in a single meal can be so great. A bottle of Markham Merlot 1996, chosen at random, was light and fruity enough to marry very well with lamb biryani, the paneer bhajia and fish. The steak, however, needed a heavier red.

If you're having the biryani, by the way, don't overpower it by ordering any other dishes. This combination of lamb curry with rice, fried onions and tomatoes needs to stand alone to be appreciated.

The restaurant has three prix-fixe dinners and a generous lunch buffet. However, buffets don't show Indian food at its best, especially tandoori chicken, which becomes soft and soggy on a steam table. The Clay Pit's spread includes fresh fruit and salads, with bottled Italian and ranch dressings for non-Indian customers.

The Clay Pit does some nice breads, among them thin whole-wheat parathas stuffed with lightly spiced spinach. And its desserts are outstanding, especially gulab jamun, which an Indian friend calls rum balls without the rum. A well-traveled visitor from New Delhi said these were the finest he had eaten outside of India in many years. Khir (rice pudding) is also very good here. The rice is cooked in milk that has been boiled down until it's as rich as cream.

BE THERE

The Clay Pit, 145 S. Barrington Ave., Brentwood (south of Sunset Boulevard). (310) 476-4700. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Wine and beer. Pay parking lot; validate at lunchtime. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $40 (lunch buffet $9.75).

What to Get: tandoori sea bass, rack of lamb, lamb biryani, fish curry, paneer bhajia, bhindi, dal makhani, gulab jamun.

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