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Divinely Different

At Surya, named for the Hindu sun god, experimentation keeps the predominantly Indian menu in constant flux.

October 12, 2000|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surya, a new Indian restaurant on 3rd Street, has surprising occidental sensibilities. Owner Sheel Joshi has a European-Asian background; hismost interesting dessert is his mother's English bread pudding.

The setting (the old Siamese Princess location) is very Westside: pale wood floors, white tablecloths, white walls, skylights, wines on display. The soundtrack might be blues, jazz or a fusion of blues and Indian music. But there are huge photos of Indian sights on the walls too. A striking figure of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, bought from a sidewalk display in Old Delhi, stands on a custom-made metal podium at the entrance.

Surya is the Hindu sun god, so the restaurant's motif is the sunburst. It even appears in lacy strands of caramel drizzled over some desserts, including a rice pudding and that bread pudding (which comes with a mound of Italian spumoni).

Standard north Indian dishes dominate Surya's menu, but Joshi is constantly experimenting, so new dishes frequently appear, especially on weekends. He has tried out tandoori lobster, and there's an excellent mint chicken, cloaked with a green sauce that includes fresh mint, fenugreek leaves, cilantro and serrano chiles.

Masala scallops are overwhelmed by a hotly spiced mixture of tomato, bell pepper and onion. Mushroom tawa masala is much more successful. The big, meaty mushrooms hold their own against the spicy seasoning.

Two appetizers stand out. The deep-fried catfish pakoras are wondrously light and tender, with a hint of the spice ajwain in the batter. Paneer pakoras cheese balls are seasoned with ajwain and cumin, breaded and deep-fried. Then they're cut in half and arranged on shredded cabbage, sliced red onion and cilantro. They're wonderful with tamarind chutney.

Chilean sea bass comes out of the tandoor miraculously tender and light. Rack of lamb is marinated with rosemary as well as the usual tandoori spices. Ground turkey kebabs are seasoned with basil, oregano, cumin and lime zest. Firm as sausages, they come with onions on a sizzling platter.

There are experimental breads too. Chicken tikka naan is stuffed with tandoori chicken; mint naan contains mint and cilantro chutney seasoned with ground pomegranate seeds. There is also a nice spinach-stuffed paratha.

This is not to say the regular menu is uninteresting. On a lunch combination plate, chicken tikka masala is bathed in a creamy sauce that contains fenugreek leaves. Next to it on the compartmentalized stainless steel plate are garbanzo beans in a less spicy sauce; spinach cooked with ginger, mustard seeds, browned coriander and cumin; and rice flecked with cumin seeds, topped with green onions and splashed with saffron. A basket of plain naan comes with the lunch, a generous assortment of very good food for $7.50.

No Beef or Pork and Mom Makes the Desserts

Like many Indian restaurants, Surya turns chicken tikka into a salad, adding mixed greens, portabello mushroom slices, cucumber and tomato with a balsamic-olive oil vinaigrette on the side.

The restaurant concentrates on lamb and chicken dishes, fish, shrimp and vegetarian food such as a plate of assorted vegetarian appetizers. There is no beef or pork.

Joshi admits he doesn't like most Indian desserts, and the menu only lists ice cream and sorbet. Most of the time you can get the bread pudding--sometimes even made by Joshi's mother, Olwyn; it's sourdough bread layered with orange marmalade, the only sweetening in the dish. There's usually a saffron rice pudding delicately sweetened with Equal and garnished with almonds and pistachios.

Picking wines to go with Indian food is tricky. Joshi stocks inexpensive Chardonnays that do well. A Trimbach Alsatian Gewurztraminer is fine with spicy dishes. Palisades lager beer from Mysore Brewing in Bangalore is even better. By the way, the masala tea (chai) is quite tame compared to the spicy chais of India.

Joshi has been in the restaurant business for 17 years. With its understated contemporary look and innovative dishes, Surya certainly fits his vision of an intentionally atypical Indian restaurant.

BE THERE

Surya, 8048 W. 3rd St., (323) 653-5151. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner, 5:30-10:30 p.m. daily. Wine and beer. Street or valet parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30.

What to Get: catfish pakoras, paneer pakoras, tandoori sea bass, mint chicken, mushroom tawa masala, chicken tikka masala combination plate, bread pudding, rice pudding.

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