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Spice Earl

Asian Kitchen in Culver City has the royal touch when it comes to the zesty cuisine of Pakistan and Muslim India.

May 18, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You see the words "Asian Kitchen" and your eyes glaze over (spring roll, sweet-and-sour, Special Fried Rice . . . ). Read a little further, though. This Asian Kitchen, cater-corner from Versailles Cuban Restaurant in Culver City, is a halal tandoori restaurant. It specializes in the cuisine of Pakistan and Muslim India.

There are Muslim religious plaques on the wall, no alcohol is served and some of the female diners probably shop at the Muslim clothing boutique a block away. Other than that, though, it's like any Indian restaurant where the soundtrack is Zamfir playing '70s hits, except that the meat is far more likely to be beef than lamb and there are dishes specifically associated with Muslims, such as haleem and nehari.

Those aren't the only surprises. Besides the usual tandoori breads, Asian Kitchen makes roghni naan, thickly covered with sesame seeds, and ginger naan--a crisp, thin-crust bread baked with slices of fresh ginger on it; it perfumes the whole table. Be sure to order a naan (or some rice, if you must), because everything is a la carte.

The usual tandoori dishes, seekh kebab (spicy ground meat on skewers, here distinctly beefy) and chicken tikka (less purplish in color and more strongly spiced than most), are on hand, served on a sizzling platter with fried onions. They're better than the average tandoori. If you want something a little wilder in the seekh kebab style, try chapli kebab, which is much the same ground beef fried in an immense patty no thicker than a tortilla.

Bihari kebab, cooked in the tandoor, is a thin beef steak apparently marinated for a day or more in yogurt, because it's deliciously tangy and so tender it's almost mushy. Like everything else here, it's subtly, and distinctively, perfumed with spices; this is the opposite of the sort of Indian restaurant that uses the same spice mixture on everything.

Organ meats rarely show up on Indian menus, but Asian Kitchen serves brains (maghaz masala) and a mixture of liver and kidneys (khatakhat). Brains are so mild that just a whiff of spice is used on them, and the dish mostly gives an impression of creaminess. The liver and kidney dish seems to be kidneys in a sort of liver sauce--kidney flavor dominates the dish, which has a strong, brooding, peppery spice treatment.

Nehari is a dish traditionally eaten in the morning; the name comes from the Arabic word for "daytime." It's a few chunks of stewed beef in a somewhat rich, bland sauce that tastes oddly like an Indonesian peanut sauce.

Haleem is altogether another story. The menu description ("Wheat, beef and lentils mashed together with spices") might not inspire you to order it, but it's quite wonderful. The meat, wheat and lentils are pureed to a smooth brown paste, faintly hot and rich with meat flavor. In fact, it's like a sort of ultra-thick gravy served as an entree.

The vegetable dishes are more familiar but good. Aloo palak is the well-known dish of potato chunks in spinach puree spiced with red pepper and asafetida. Bhindi, also rather peppery in a bit of tomato sauce, shows the world that okra doesn't have to have a slimy consistency.

Rice takes a second seat to bread here. Still, you can get a very good version of biryani, every grain of the basmati rice cooked perfectly distinct, with reddish splashes of saffron here and there. The rice is mixed with either chicken or lamb shank stewed in a bit of tomato sauce.

Dessert rarely offers any surprises at Indian restaurants. Here you can get kheer, the usual rice pudding scented with exotic pandanus blossom, or gajar halwa, a carrot-flavored sweetmeat with the consistency of damp bread crumbs. Kulfi, the Indian ice cream made from condensed milk, comes on a stick (hey, kulfi bars!). The usual flavors are mango and pistachio.

Altogether, this is a terrific place. Its only real drawback is the water, which is sometimes so chlorinated it looks like it could turn your teeth green. The lemonade is odd, too--it seems to be made from dried limes--but both yogurt-based drinks are good. Beside the slightly sweet plain lassi, the mango lassi is almost a milkshake. In fact, it wouldn't make a bad dessert itself.

BE THERE

Asian Kitchen Halal Tandoori Restaurant, 10406 Venice Blvd., Culver City. (310) 559-9644, (310) 559-9645. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Parking lot and street parking. All major credit or debit cards. Dinner for two, $16 to $23.

What to Get: ginger naan, roghni naan, tandoori chicken, chapli kebab, bihari kebab, haleem, biryani, bhindi, mango lassi, kulfi.

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