The Royal Khyber, recently relocated to South Coast Plaza Village in Santa Ana, must be aware that it's now competing with the likes of Gustaf Anders, Pinot Provence and Troquet. More reason than ever for this unusually creative Indian restaurant to go beyond the usual cookie-cutter Moghlai menu.
Its alluring design provides a kick-start. There are many exquisite objets d'art, such as a magnificent carving of Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati.
One wall features a row of oil paintings commissioned by chef-owner Arun Puri for his grand opening, all on Indian peasant themes.
You enter though a beautiful antique wooden door that Puri found in his native Punjab. Carved panels from the old restaurant, finished in faded gold paint, hang from the ceiling.
The handsome wooden and tapestry chairs are wonderfully plush.
All well and good, but the Royal Khyber will ultimately have to depend on its kitchen.
And although chef Puri is often right on the mark, one often senses he's holding something back.
For instance, the cilantro and tamarind chutneys served with complimentary lentil wafers (pappadums) are nice and fresh but lack bite. And though Puri uses nine-spice mixtures in his dishes, they're toned down, as if consciously Americanized.
Still, his innovative Sunday brunch is delightful. If you're tired of the steam-table buffet virtually every Indian restaurant serves at lunch and brunch, Puri's offering (a steal at $12.95) will gladden your heart.
First you raid an appetizer table laden with a delicious warm eggplant salad, the spicy fried potato snack papri chat, mixed greens in tamarind dressing, South Indian lentil fritters, tamarind soup and a variety of chutneys. Then you take pieces of seekh kebab and tandoori chicken directly from an Indian griddle (tawa).
Next you get an entree prepared to order, anything from creative tandoori chicken ravioli to a traditional Goan lamb vindaloo. At the end, you have a choice of desserts, usually cheese balls, rice pudding and a variety of fresh fruits. It's a meal that properly complements the upscale surroundings.
Having been impressed by brunch, I had high expectations for dinner--a little too high, as it happened, because some of the items struck me as bland.
Not all of them, of course. One of Puri's appealing innovations is the samosa, that familiar deep-fried pastry pyramid, here filled with a piquant shrimp filling rather than the usual potatoes and peas. Another attractive creation is basil coconut curried chicken, which uses coconut milk--common in southern Indian dishes--with basil, which is relished in northern India.
But all too often, I just wished his dishes had more character. The hors d'oeuvre dumke kebab, which the menu calls smoked lamb cakes, are hard to tell from seekh kebab, the usual ground lamb skewers that come from the tandoor. They're fried and have a different shape and an exotic ginger marinade, but these spicy lamb burgers just don't taste smoked.
Cornish game hen and quail, both from the tandoor, are a welcome change from the familiar tandoori chicken. But both meats would benefit from a spice crust, or at least a different marinade than the one used on the chicken. That might accent the distinctive flavors of quail and game hen (and keep the meats from drying out).
Several dishes here do break the mold. The terrific warm eggplant salad is bits of sauteed eggplant, red onions and sweet bell peppers tossed with a tangy chat spice mixture and the perfect amount of coarse salt.
And an ultra-tender lamb shank, marinated for 14 hours, has a sublime broth infused with what tastes like nearly a dozen spices.
The Goan prawn masala makes use of the biggest prawns on the market. Unfortunately, the white wine and garlic sauce they're cooked in reminds me more of the Mediterranean than of Goa, a southern Indian enclave known for blisteringly hot food.
And I'd pass on the chicken biryani. The basmati rice is dry, and the flavor of cloves overwhelms the raisins, almonds and, in fact, chicken.
The old Indian menu standbys haven't been neglected. You can get chicken, lamb or shrimp with a variety of classic sauces. Puri does an honorable job on lamb sagwala: chunks of meat mingled with a velvety spinach puree. I recommend his chicken tikka masala, in a flavorful creamy tomato sauce shot through with ginger.
No problem with the tandoori breads, or the usual side dishes (mango chutney, lemon rice and the like) and desserts (rice pudding).
The bread I prefer with most dishes here is plain roti, an unleavened whole-wheat flatbread. One interesting alternative is the strongly flavored aloo methi paratha, a buttery flatbread with a spicy filling of potatoes and fenugreek leaves, an aromatic cousin to spinach.
Royal Khyber, clearly, has all the ingredients. Now the trick will be getting the kitchen to use them with more relish.
Royal Khyber is moderate to expensive. Salads and hors d'oeuvres are $4.50 to $7.95. Tandoor specialties are $10.95 to $16.95. Entrees are $11.95 to $17.75. Vegetable dishes are $6.75 to $7.75.
The Royal Khyber, 1621 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana. (714) 436-1010. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. All major cards.