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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Kenny’s Kitchen Kills a Conversation With Kindness, and Tasty, Health-Conscious Meals

The first time I ate at Kenny’s Kitchen in Van Nuys, I was with my friend Ellen, who’s a good talker. I’m not a bad talker myself. Together we usually talk up a storm.

I mention this because we were already hard at it when we arrived at Kenny’s, which is tucked well back in a new gray mini-mall on Sherman Way. I think we might have paused for breath while walking through the door, but we immediately resumed talking when we sat down at a table. Eventually, we took a few moments to peek at the menu, then ordered quickly, almost at random, an appetizer, the day’s specials and freshly squeezed juices. I don’t even remember when the first food arrived. We lifted our forks and just kept yakking away until, all of a sudden, simultaneously, we looked at each other, blinked, and, in silence, looked down at what we were eating.

The conversation-stoppers were little fried potato cutlets called aloo tika. Fluffy and crispy at the same time, these cunning fritters were studded with green peas for color and anise seeds for a satisfying internal crunch. There were hot chile and cool tamarind chutneys to spoon over them. The flavors were fresh, lively and then some: bright, I think, is the right word.

Bright would do well to describe all the food I had at Kenny’s Kitchen. Bright, refreshing, surprising, delightful, healthful, unusual and delicious, it’s the kind of food that good cooks prepare for someone of whom they are extremely fond. It’s like food in a happy home. On the wall, there’s a hand-lettered sign, which must have been occasioned by the Sunday, all-you-can-eat $4.95 buffet. It reads:

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We have prepared this food with love

So you can eat it with love

Please do not waste food

Ellen said, “If they wanted to make it really hard, they could have said, please leave at least a few crumbs on your plate.”

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The good cooks are Kenny himself and his wife, Karin, who hail from Bombay. Kenny, a calm, kind man, who holds a master’s degree in business from Cambridge, England, had opened a tailor shop in the little Van Nuys plaza. He says he had always wanted to open a restaurant, and when the pizza parlor next door to his shop went up for sale, it was more than Kenny could resist. The tailoring is still a going concern; the Kitchen, he says, is his hobby. He nevertheless manages to spend plenty of time cooking, saying, “I like to, and I’m good at it.” It’s a statement nobody could quarrel with, nobody with functioning taste buds, that is.

Using guidelines from the American Heart Assn., Kenny prepares food low in sodium and cholesterol. He also uses only green chile peppers for spicy heat, because, he says, red chiles are too corrosive to human digestive tracts. As a result, his food has a lively but manageable zing; it’s fire in your mouth, but a fire that never burns out of control.

All the vegetable dishes are made fresh daily and in small quantities, and vary according to what’s seasonal.

On this first visit and succeeding ones, I found it helpful to ask Kenny for advice in ordering. Thanks to his suggestions, I discovered two dishes I’d never tasted before, and I loved both of them. One was the house specialty, bhelpuri, a Bombay snack that can only be described as a salad of varied and multiple crunchiness. Puffed rice, fried noodles and a crumbled crackerlike element are mixed up with onions and cilantro in a juicy lemony, slightly sweet, very refreshing dressing: Each bite is fascinating.

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I also had uthapam with sambar and coconut chutney, a soft, chewy, crisp-bottomed crepe made of lentil flour topped with lightly cooked onions and barely cooked fresh tomatoes and cilantro. “I can’t tell you how much I love this,” Ellen said.

Kenny also suggested the kashmiri kofta, which is a sophisticated saag paneer: There’s the spicy spinach base, but the fresh homemade cheese has been combined with fresh vegetables to form airy, savory, fresh little dumplings, which, like the potato cutlets, defy gravity and all the rules of deep frying with their lightness.

Each curry had a distinct personality. Chicken in garlic sauce was a direct, warm, spicy dish guaranteed to zap any ill, especially those troubling the sinuses. Lamb korma was a subtler stew, more comforting in concept. The okra masala, a recent special, was bright yellow in color and alive with flavor: a very cheery dish.

There are authentic details at Kenny’s often missing in more Americanized Indian restaurants. There are whole wheat chapatis and paratha ; there’s aromatic basmati rice and chi, real Indian tea, the kind brewed with milk and cardamon and other spices. Kenny and Karin also make their own ice cream, including two different pistachio varieties. Thirst quenchers include delicious juices that are made to order. Kenny’s also has the lightest, freshest and least-sweet lassi in the Valley.

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Kenny’s Kitchen

14126 Sherman Way (just west of Hazeltine), Van Nuys. (818) 786-4868.

Open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. Parking lot. No alcoholic beverages. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $10 to $25.

Recommended dishes: bhelpuri, $1.50; uthapam, $2.99; kashmiri kofta, $5.50.

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