When my husband and I lived in New York in the 1960s, our very own, very first family tradition was to eat in an Indian restaurant every Friday night. I used to bring my own chutney in a little jar because I thought the restaurant’s price--25 cents a serving--was too much.
How we’ve changed. But we’ve never lost our love for Indian food. And we were delighted to find such a good Indian restaurant in Westlake Village.
Now getting to Jag’s India House is something of a challenge. At the moment Jag’s is one of the few lonely occupants of a large shopping mall that is being transformed into a kind of lush, tropical water park. To find it, you have to follow a series of signs through a maze of walkways among eerie, empty buildings overlooking waterways and ponds-in-progress.
This unusual introduction contributes to the restaurant’s feeling of being an exotic haven. So does the soft Indian music and the lyrical sound of Indian accents. Jag’s calls its cuisine “royal Mogul,” but the place actually has rather restrained decor compared to many Mogul-style Indian restaurants, with nothing but a touch of mirrored fabric and only a few elephant images.
The breads alone are worth the trip. The thin, crisp pappadum wafer explodes in the mouth with a burst of flavor and then curiously disappears as if it had only been air. The paratha , freshly baked in the tandoor oven, consists of thin layers of hot, flaky whole wheat, not unlike a chewy pie crust. The nan kulcha, a leavened version of the paratha , is lighter and flavored with bits of onion.
While the food here is fragrant with many different spices, the cooks don’t make it particularly hot unless you ask them to. What I find impressive is how utterly different the dishes manage to be. In the vegetable pakora --a kind of Indian tempura consisting of batter fried vegetables--each individual vegetable has its own unique seasoning.
A number of dishes are available from the tandoor, the clay oven that cooks at incredibly high temperatures. I especially like the tandoori chicken in masala sauce. The chicken has all the wonderful flavor that comes from being marinated in yogurt and spices, but this sauce gives an added dimension; as a bonus, the result isn’t as dry as the plain tandoori chicken.
There are also a number of sauteed dishes. Lamb rogan josh comes in a rich, savory curry sauce with almonds, green herbs and yogurt. By contrast, shrimp masala has a delicate, tangy sauce flecked with fresh coriander and bits of lemon rind. Lamb saag consists of chunks of lamb, thickly coated with spinach puree with a mild hint of ginger. Even better is the fish hazur pasand : chewy and slightly sweet, cooked with tomatoes, herbs and spices.
On the whole the dishes are a little dry, but only in the case of the rice is this a problem. A delicious raita , made with yogurt and pureed cucumbers, provides a cool compliment to the flavors of the curries, which are further enhanced by two condiments: a sweet mango chutney and a spicy, slightly sour, mint chutney.
Perhaps because we could never afford to order dessert those many years ago in New York, the desserts at India House seem more foreign to my taste than the rest of the meal. The kulfi-- called ice cream in the menu--was cold but refused to have the texture of Western ice cream; it was more like caramel candy. The gulab jaman (“cheese and solid milk ball”) reminds me of sponge cake saturated in sweet syrup.
I don’t care. After the sensational satisfaction of all the wonderful tastes of the dinner, any dessert might seem superfluous.
* WHERE AND WHEN: Jag’s India House, 860 Hampshire Road, Suite U, Westlake Village, (805) 373-6266. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Wine and beer. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50.