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RESTAURANTS | Counter Intelligence

Added Flavoring

Flavor of India in West Hollywood goes beyond the basics, adding fusion dishes and light snacks.

July 08, 1999|BARBARA HANSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What do you do with the tip of an odd-shaped city block? Flavor of India has cleverly landscaped its prow-like, semi-outdoor room into a garden.

With that challenge nicely conquered, the restaurant has attempted the more significant challenge of making the usual Indian menu seem fresh and new. Chef Darshan Singh, who cooked at Bombay Grill for seven years, has added fusion dishes and Bombay Grill-type snacks to the basics. This suits its West Hollywood ambience and pleases its (mostly young and non-Indian) customers.

Sometimes the result is rather lame; for example, the quite ordinary vegetarian penne. Occasionally, it's wonderful. Other Indian restaurants might well copy the idea of following spicy food with a cooling lime-mint sorbet.

Big puffy rice pappadums come automatically as an appetizer. One night, they came with a heavily garlicked sweet tomato chutney--a welcome change from the usual chutneys. Another, it was an unusual sweet pumpkin chutney.

Shades of Thanksgiving. And speaking of that holiday, the sweet carrot pudding called gajar halwa walks such a thin line between vegetable and dessert, it would be quite nice with roast turkey.

The pappadums are light, leaving space for more serious starters such as began salad--fried eggplant chunks (baingan is the more usual spelling of the word for eggplant) topped with tomato sauce, yogurt and cilantro.

There's also a romaine and vegetable salad with tiny golden strands of fried chickpea vermicelli (sev) and cubes of Indian paneer cheese. The dressing is spiked with roasted cumin and cilantro.

Aloo tikki look for all the world like baba au rhum in a shiny, syrupy glaze. Only these little cakes are made of potato (the menu coyly refers to them as Indian latkes) and the sauce is golden brown from tamarind.

One of the nicest dishes on the menu is the plain-sounding vegetarian soup. It's toor dal (a yellow legume), tomatoes and spinach, moved out of the ordinary with bright seasonings such as lime juice and sambar powder, a south Indian spice blend.

There's a tandoori fish, not much helped by its harsh accompaniment of bell peppers; the green chutney on the same plate, peppery though it is, is actually a better match. And there's a curried fish of the day, but it's not terribly imaginative; the sauce is always the same, whatever the fish.

The chicken curry, on the other hand, really does change. There are 20 variations. Sauceless dalla chicken, for instance, is poached, then sauteed with tart mango powder, coriander and cayenne, emerging with an arresting dark coat of seasonings.

The chicken tikka masala is excellent; the tender cubes of chicken stay moist, rather than drying out in the tandoor. The buttery tomato sauce is seasoned with fenugreek greens and saffron. This same sauce appears on cheese in the vegetarian makhni paneer.

Paneer is a bland enough cheese to support a great variety of sauces and seasonings. In shahi paneer, it dons an elegant cloak of Mogul-style cream sauce along with raisins, cashews and almonds.

The usual north Indian vegetable dishes are on the menu, among them cauliflower with potatoes, spiced chickpeas, spinach with paneer and tandoor-roasted eggplant with tomatoes and spices. The breads include a naan stuffed with fine bits of tandoori chicken and accompanied by sweet tomato chutney.

Meat lovers can try a tandoori plate that samples everything on the clay oven menu except the fish. Not that hungry? Snack on a "frankie"--a sort of Indian burrito stuffed with lamb or chicken. There's a vegetarian frankie too, with cauliflower and potatoes.

In addition to the sorbets and carrot halwa, desserts include mango, pistachio and ginger kulfis, all made at the restaurant, and a satisfyingly rich rice pudding.

This place has proven popular enough to institute a Saturday buffet and a Sunday Champagne brunch. It has a modest regular wine list at all times, for that matter, and beers too. But in warm weather, a better alternative is sparkling nimbu pani (lemonade), faintly seasoned with ginger.

BE THERE

Flavor of India, 9045 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 274-1715. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; buffet 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Beer and wine. Free valet parking. Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $30.

What to Get: began salad, vegetarian soup, chicken tikka masala, dalla chicken, shahi paneer, paneer salad, lime-mint sorbet.

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