Savory Blend of Indian and Pakistani Cuisines

David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

The new Taj Mahal restaurant in Poway is up-front about the connection it has made between Indian and Pakistani cooking, and advertises "Indo-Pak cuisine" on its signboard. The two cuisines certainly are related, as are the two countries, which were united during the centuries of British rule and separated only after India gained its independence in 1947.

Most Pakistanis follow Islam, reflected on the Taj Mahal menu by the various uses of lamb, the favorite meat of Islamic countries. Hinduism predominates in India--although the religious diversity in that country is dazzling--and, although different castes and sects observe a variety of dietary laws, they mostly agree on certain vegetable, rice and dairy preparations, which again turn up at Taj Mahal.

The menu offers a fairly inclusive survey of the dishes that usually appear on Indian lists in this country, balanced to suit American tastes by including entrees built on lamb, chicken, shrimp and fish; beef and pork are not served. Like many Indian restaurants, Taj Mahal accommodates vegetarians quite well in every department of the meal, including appetizers and soups.

The emphasis on Northern Indian cooking is not surprising, given the restaurant's Indo-Pak self-classification; some of the curries tend to be so creamy as to seem French, and a number of items are roasted at high heat in the kitchen's tandoor , a traditional clay oven here fired with all-American mesquite charcoal.

Neither Indians nor Pakistanis treat rice--an essential and daily item in the diets of both countries--as an afterthought. Most entrees at Taj Mahal are not automatically accompanied by rice, which makes it necessary to order a plate of pillau for the table. Made with slender, extra-long-grained, nut-flavored basmati rice, it is exceptionally good. More elaborate are the Pakistani biryanis , or baked rice casseroles, flavored with saffron and studded with nuts; Taj Mahal offers these with a choice of spiced chicken, lamb, shrimp or vegetables, or in a deluxe biryani that includes all of them.

Appetizers, all of them fried, include samosa pastries stuffed with a mildly spiced, chopped lamb mixture or a heavy, rather bland combination of potatoes and peas (a favorite Indian combination) that is helped by a spoonful of the sour-hot cilantro chutney offered on the side. Chicken pakora , or tidbits encased in a chickpea-flour batter, are rather dry; oddly, the potato pakora are more interesting, particularly when dipped in the sweet, thin tamarind chutney also brought on the side. The papadum , broad, papery wafers somewhat hotly flavored with spices, should not be missed.

Portions tend to be large, and it is easy to over-order, but side dishes of both the hot mango chutney and the cool raita (yogurt blended with minced cucumber, herbs and black pepper) should be indulged in if the meal includes one of the numerous curries.

Probably the most intense curry is the vindaloo , available with chicken or lamb. Moderately spiced contrasted with versions served elsewhere, the lamb vindaloo combines tender chunks of meat and cubed potatoes in a vast sea of creamy, orange-tinted sauce that alternates between sweet and hot flavors. Again awash in creamy sauce, the chicken tikka masala offers delicate, teasing spice notes, and would have been enjoyable had the meat not been so dry. The chicken evidently had first been cooked in the tandoor --chicken tikka , or boneless cubes marinated in spiced yogurt prefatory to tandoor roasting, is the house specialty--and further cooking in the sauce rendered it quite devoid of juices.

The many other entree choices include lamb or chicken saag , or cooked in a spinach-based curry; tandoori prawns, marinated in highly spiced vinegar; the prawn masala , which emphasizes spices and smoothes their effect with yogurt, and such vegetarian dishes as the malai kofta , or balls of minced vegetables cooked in creamy curry, and the palak paneer , cheese cubes simmered with spiced spinach.

Taj Mahal makes a specialty of fresh Indian breads and offers an impressive kulcha (flat bread, rather like pizza dough, stuffed with a tasty filling of onions and cilantro) as well as whole wheat paratha , and the keema naan , a chewy bread stuffed with spiced, minced lamb.

Desserts include the fried pastries soaked in syrup called gulab jamun , rather good when just-prepared, as they were on a recent visit, and kheer - i - khas , or rice very slowly simmered in sweetened milk flavored with pistachios, almonds and saffron.

Taj Mahal

13035 Pomerado Road, Poway

Calls: 748-4845

Hours: Lunch and dinner served Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday

Cost: Dinner for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $45

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