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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Firm Hand Helps Mughlai Cuisine Send Palate Reeling

Mughlai, the colorful, festive cooking style of northern India, was developed from the cross-cultural mix of Persians, Kashmiris, Hindus and other who passed through the Ganges River plain across the centuries.

The dishes tend to be rich in meat and generous with oil. They are filling, highly spiced dishes that leave the palate reeling, the senses in shock.

Most Indian restaurants in southern California, though, tend to have the same Mughlai menus, give or take a vindaloo here or a masala there, and few take chances with exotic flavors or fiery spice mixtures. There are occasional exceptions--a south Indian/Gujurati snack stand in Cerritos, or the newer, experimental Cal/Indian cafes such as East India Grill and Bombay Cafe in Los Angeles, which aim at Westside foodies and their insatiable desire for novelty. But beyond that. . . .

At first glance, Mayur (which means peacock in Hindi) appears simply to be flowing with the Mughlai tide. You can pretty well recite the dishes on this menu before you enter the restaurant’s narrow doorway. Once inside, there are surprises.

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When under the personal supervision of the owner, Mrs. Anju Kapor, dinner at Mayur can be as pleasant an experience as you can get in an Orange County Indian restaurant. My second dinner was remarkably better than the first, and I believe that it was because Mrs. Kapor was not present on my initial visit.

The second time I ate there, I watched Mrs. Kapor monitoring the chefs who labored at the tandoor behind a glass wall, and I’m sure they knew she was observing. She was following her waiters too as they brought various dishes to the table, making sure they served them hot.

I hate to be a tattletale, but on my first visit both the waiter and the chefs appeared to be languishing.

But I was partly to blame for some of the problems with my first meal at Mayur; I didn’t choose wisely. I began with aloo chat , described as “sauteed potatoes with green peas in a spicy blend of herbs.” This is sublime street food in India, hawked by vendors from a metal grill for about one rupee (7 cents) an order. At Mayur, the dish is ridiculous: fried cubed potatoes with chopped-up bell peppers, not a pea in sight. I thought I was eating hash browns in a breakfast joint.

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Then the waiter ambled over with a mixed tandoori platter: excellent seekh kebab (mixed ground meat on skewers), wonderfully savory shrimp, chicken tikka cut into big and unwieldy chunks and an undercooked tandoori chicken thigh, red on the inside as well as the outside. My feelings about the dish were, like its name, mixed.

I must admit that the main dish that first night, rogan josh (stewed, curried lamb), was superb. The lamb was firm and tender, the sauce rich with natural juices.

But the vegetable dishes lacked appeal. Vegetable biryani , an overpriced rice dish, might as well have been plain rice. Dal makhani (creamed, spiced lentils) was absolutely bland. And bharta (roasted eggplant cooked in tomatoes and onions) came far too oily, leaving a reddish residue wherever it was spooned.

The breads--a buttery naan and aijwan paratha , a flat, whole-wheat bread with an Indian herb that tastes like minty horehound--were perfect. And the masala tea, a blend with ginger, cardamom and condensed milk, made a fine ending.

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But leaving that night, I had the strong feeling that the place could do better. Two nights later, my suspicions were confirmed.

As soon as the stiff-backed waiter brought the vegetable pakoras , frittered vegetables in a spicy lentil batter (Indian tempura), I could sense that things had improved dramatically. Fish tikka was wonderful, with the chunks of mahi-mahi dripping spice from a crusty shell bronzed onto them in the clay oven.

And the bread-- aloo paratha , a flat bread with potato puree and peas--had exactly the flavor I sought when I ended up with hash browns during the previous visit.

Main dishes were better too. Lamb vindaloo , a Goan preparation with plenty of vinegar, chile and chunked potato, was terrific--spicy, fragrant and well balanced. Shahi paneer , an interesting blend of Indian cheese, tomato and onion, went well with the fiery house mint and carrot chutneys.

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Only channa masala , spiced garbanzo beans, disappointed. The dish was bland and oily, like the eggplant I had eaten on the first night.

The two desserts here are simple and fine. Kulfi , an Indian ice cream flavored with pistachio and almonds, is cut into chunks and halfway melted by the time it gets to you. The other is kheer , a rice pudding.

Mayur is moderately priced. Tandoori specialties are $7.95 to $15.95. Entrees are $10.95 to $12.95. Desserts are $3 and $3.95. There is a nice little wine list but no corkage fee should you decide to bring your own. Most people instead drink Indian beer (Kingfisher, $3.95).

MAYUR

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2931 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar

(714) 675-6622

Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner seven nights, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; champagne brunch Sunday from noon.


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