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At the Electric Lotus, Eclectic Tastes

Chef Baba's influences range from England to Kashmir and Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

April 12, 2001|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're weary of the copycat menus at most Indian restaurants, head for the Electric Lotus on West 3rd St. Chef-owner Baba (that's the only name he uses) is constantly experimenting.

His family's Anglo-Indian cuisine inspired a glorious tandoor-grilled Chilean sea bass. The fish is spiced with English restraint, but it comes on cauliflower puree flavored with ginger, coconut milk and fresh turmeric. There are also green peas dosed with fresh turmeric, ginger and garam masala.

Baba makes an Anglo-Indian salad in his mother's dressing, a sweet "vinaigrette" made with tamarind, olive oil, ginger, dates and fresh turmeric.

One of his inventions is Kashmiri chicken tikka: chicken breast washed with rice vinegar, marinated overnight in olive oil and slathered with yogurt and herbs. The meat comes out amazingly soft and moist, and it's drizzled with lemon-flavored olive oil. Underneath, Baba might place a jumble of stir-fried bell peppers, onions and zucchini.

Baba does nearly all his frying with olive oil. His vegetarian dishes are all vegan. He's so pro-vegan that he substitutes coconut milk for cream in the non-vegan chicken tikka masala.

One night, he stuffed chicken breasts with ornate fillings: cashews, raisins and coconut; dates and cashews; both pistachios and cashews combined with mint chutney, cilantro and serrano chiles. Some were topped with coconut sauce, others with a sauce of tomatoes, cumin, coriander and Indian black salt. He calls this Kashmiri chicken, because of the Kashmiri fondness for nuts and dried fruits, but the concept really comes from his home town, Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal.

He also makes elaborate pilafs: say, plain basmati rice layered with rice combined with cashews and spiced rice. His pizza is a whole wheat tandoori roti topped with mint chutney, bell peppers, cauliflower, peas and red onion. It's enough for a meal, with a salad on the side.

His naan breads are huge--more than 2 feet long. One is topped with chopped green olives, another with mozzarella and serrano chiles.

The more conventional side of the menu includes samosas with a potato filling cooked with olive oil and spices until soft and creamy. The pastry wrapper is thin and crisp. The pakoras (fried vegetable fritters) are nice snacks to eat with the mango and mint chutneys.

Aloo gobi is a familiar dish of potatoes and cauliflower cooked soft, which suits Indian taste. There's a mellow eggplant roasted in the tandoor, mashed and combined with tomatoes, onions and spicy masalas. Other vegetarian dishes include green peas cooked with tofu, channa masala (garbanzos in spiced tomato sauce) and tofu curry. Chicken appears in curry or vindaloo, with spinach and grilled in the tandoor. You can also get tiger prawns and lobster grilled in the same super-hot oven.

*

Wearing a white chef's coat embroidered with his name, Baba does an occasional turn in the dining room, greeting guests and asking how they like the food. This is his second Electric Lotus. He sold the first, which is in Los Feliz Village. The new quarters are more luxurious and intimate, glowing with warm saffron walls and candlelight. Mogul paintings and Indian pillows decorate the room. The centerpiece is a life-size baby elephant made of rosewood inlaid with bone from deceased elephants. The figure once stood in front of the palace of the Maharajah of Bharatpur. The Maharajah later presented it to Baba's grandfather.

The restaurant has a patio, which should be nice for summer dining. One wall of this open space is decorated with a painting of a Tibetan goddess, the other with the word om in Indian calligraphy.

Baba's sound system sometimes plays qawwali Sufi music blended with Goan trance music from a CD that he produced. On the weekend, there is live music.

The Electric Lotus is the second Indian restaurant to open in West Third Street's lively restaurant district. Its predecessor is Surya, a few blocks east. The existence of both makes one wonder if more will appear, perhaps forming an Indian restaurant row.

* Electric Lotus, 8222 1/2 W. 3rd Street, Los Angeles. (323) 653-2121. Dinner 6 to 11 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Valet parking at night. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $19 to $35.

* What to Get: tandoori sea bass on cauliflower puree, Kashmiri chicken tikka, Anglo-Indian salad with tamarind dressing, Kashmiri stuffed chicken breasts, Indian pizza, mozzarella naan.

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