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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Spices Are the Breath of Life to This Indian Fare

I have traveled in India and found the spicing in dishes there to be remarkably pronounced and diverse. It is not always that way here.

“Many Indian chefs in this country do not take the time to grind spices fresh,” explained a fine local Indian chef, “and the few who do often find the process so time-consuming that they forget to use them properly. A good chef in India rarely uses the same spice mixture twice.”

Now, I can sympathize with the local restaurateur who finds grinding spices too labor-intensive for his food costs. But using the same seasonings and sauces for different meats and vegetables is just not necessary. Imagine an Italian restaurant that used a marinara sauce with all the pasta dishes. That is how many Indian restaurants treat their curried meats and vegetables.

The very good Far Pavilions in Newport Beach occasionally suffers from this syndrome, but happily the problem is more easily solved here. Owner Binay Lall is constantly in the dining room and knows that many dishes in his restaurant have especially distinct flavors. Ask for his guidance.

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The restaurant, housed in a charming, beachfront building, has much to recommend it. Handsome, articulate waiters dress in tuxedos. There are flowers and linens on all tables. The room is softly lit and colored in subtle pastels. And the menu is vast and varied, filled with many Indian specialties hard to find in other local restaurants.

The food is prepared by chef Said Alam, a Pakistani from Bombay who has headed the kitchen at two of Los Angeles’ best-known Indian restaurants, Akbar and Aashiana. Alam’s food is Mughlai, named for the Moguls who once ruled Central Asia. It is at once rich and colorful.

On the back of the menu is the information that Mughlai cuisine is a mix of Persian and Hindustani food, carefully blended with an exotic variety of Indian spices. What it doesn’t say is how often these exotic blends come across as undifferentiated.

If you anticipate this problem and order carefully, it’s possible to have a wonderful dinner at this restaurant. The chef has a light, skillful hand, and many of his creations are sheer delight. An appetizer called kashk-e-badamjan (sauteed, pureed eggplant and onion topped with a thickened yogurt sauce) makes a wonderful beginning, scooped up with naan --hot, flat bread straight from the tandoor, or clay oven. No matter that it is a Persian dish. Owner Lall once managed a Persian restaurant in New York City.

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The chef’s vegetable pakoras , described simply as “fritters” on the menu, are among the best I’ve ever tasted. The dish consists of bite-sized morsels of onion and cauliflower, battered with a sun-colored flour made from yellow lentil and dropped into the deep fryer until golden brown. They are remarkably light and crispy, almost entirely free of oil. Eat them with the various chutneys brought along--mint, tamarind and carrot pickle--and you have a sublime snack. I could easily make an entire meal of them.

Next try the mixed tandoori platter, a selection of meats broiled in the restaurant’s clay oven. A spicy, excellent, half- tandoori chicken crowns this dish, flanked by pieces of seekh kebab , ground lamb mixed with onions roasted on skewers. Tandoori shrimp, a dish you would be lucky to find in India, also comes along, encrusted with a dry coating of spices. Chicken tikka-- ruddy, succulent chunks that melt in the mouth--are piled on top. Sandwich the meats with onion kulcha , another of the piping-hot breads straight from the same oven.

Then you are ready for the main dishes. Far Pavilions’ special chicken is a rare treat from the Vale of Kashmir region--little minced balls of chicken in a tomato puree. Lamb vindaloo (lamb, onion and hot peppers in a fiery paste) comes from Goa, the former Portuguese colony on the south coast of the subcontinent. The kitchen will make it as hot as you can stand it. And Bihari kebab , from India’s little-visited Bihar state, is a saucy chicken dish with the most distinctive spicing of any dish in the restaurant.

You’ll want vegetable dishes to balance the dinner. The dishes are all fine by themselves, but several, among them, bhindi masala (spicy okra), channa masala (chick peas in a tomato-based sauce), gobi aloo (curried cauliflower and potato), and the unusual marchi ka salan (fresh green chilies in a hot paste), leave a similar impression on the palate. My favorite is the okra.

But watch out for vegetable pillau , colorful basmati rice with little bits of carrot, pea, almond and other tidbits scattered through the rice. This rice looks beautiful, but lacks the subtle fragrance you would expect from a first-class kitchen. A pinch more saffron might make the difference.

Instead, enjoy the very different saag paneer (spinach with homemade cheese) or bhen masala (lotus root with sharp spices). Other breads like paratha , unleavened whole wheat bread in layers, go well with these two. Lentil dishes such as zaffrani dal (washed lentils with saffron) or dal makhani (a heavier preparation in a thick cream sauce) round out the dinner nicely. It should be one to remember.

Finish with a small dessert. Kheer khas is a thickened rice pudding with almond that tastes faintly of cardamom and cinnamon. Kulfi , a homemade ice cream with pistachio and rose water, is rich and runny. Gulab jaman , golden-colored milk balls in sweet syrup, have a soft, buttery glide going down. All are very sweet.

Far Pavilions is moderately priced but on the high end for local Indian restaurants. Appetizers are $3.50 to $9.95. Chef’s specialties are $7.50 to $13.50. Seafoods are $11.95 to $16.50. Vegetable dishes are $4.95 to $6.50.

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FAR PAVILIONS

1520 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach

(714) 548-7167

Open 7 days, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. for lunch; 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. for dinner

All major cards accepted


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