Artesian Swell

The restaurant Rajdoot marks the northern edge of Artesia's Little India neighborhood, the Pioneer Boulevard drag of sari merchants and jewelry joints, Indian music stores and posters that advertise Parsi-Gujarati spectaculars. Indian snack shops, Indian fast-food places, and fragrant grocery stores well stocked with fresh turmeric abound. In this part of town, samosas are as common as tacos, turbans as frequently seen as cowboy hats in Texas.

Rajdoot, owned by a consortium of local businessmen (including the owner of the excellent Standard Sweets a mile down the road), is pretty much Little India's fancy place, softly scented and gently lit, with cloth napkins and bowls of breath-sweetening cardamom pods placed strategically by the door. Each dish is served in gleaming copper tureens and is a couple of dollars more expensive than it would be at one of the less formal restaurants down the street. Everywhere you look are glittering knickknacks, rich fabrics, even an Indian-art coffee-table book or two strategically propped in a wall niche. Weekends, a sitar player, sort of the equivalent of a harpist in a swank Continental place, drones serenely from a low, pillow-covered stage. Rajdoot is not a curry joint.

The items on the menu are each rapturously described in English, making it easy to pick out a meal, and though you will probably end up drinking big bottles of excellent, smoky Taj Mahal beer from Bombay, there is a lengthy wine list. (There is also a popular $5.95 lunch buffet.) Rajdoot is popular for private parties and receptions, which makes it imperative that you call first, so that you don't drive 50 miles (as I recently did--even after calling) only to find that the entire restaurant has been booked.

When Rajdoot opened a couple of months ago, it had a chef from Hyderabad, a dozen or so dishes that had never been seen in the Southland, exotic vegetable concoctions and elaborate pulaos . Now the chef is gone and the menu has settled down into more or less the familiar trans-Indian mode of a lot of other restaurants. Still, Rajdoot's food is creamier, more elegant, more complexly spiced than you'll find at other local Indian places, closer to chef-driven cuisine than to folk cooking . . . and it weighs no heavier on your belly than the average Melrose Italian meal. Maybe the kitchen is using something like Gee, I Can't Believe It's Not Ghee.

There is a light tomato-herb soup; a turmeric-yellow "mulligtawny" soup that conceals tasty bits of lamb in its spicy depths; cubes of fresh, white cheese that are lightly battered and cooked until they are crisp and melting. Papadum crackers are light as air, served with a pair of chutneys. Tandoori chicken, fiery red, is rushed sizzling from oven to table. Paneer tikka , tandoor-cooked cubes of marinated fresh, white cheese, were as bland and soothing as the young ghazal singer who performed one Saturday night. A s amosa was asleaden as a West Coast knish. The breads--crisp garlic naan , sweet onion kulcha , potato-stuffed paratha --are superb.

The Goan fish curry--sort of the South Indian equivalent of huichinago Veracruzana --was tart and sweet and wonderful, and the kadai murgh , sort of a spicy chicken stew, was good. The most successful main dishes here, though, tend to be vegetarian: dal makhani (stewed black lentils and red beans that seem closer to great Tuscan hearth-baked fagioli than to the usual thin yellow glop); ginger-laced dal tadka ; navratan korma (cauliflower and peapods and such cooked in a richly sweet cashew-cream gravy); a startlingly delicious dish of stewed okra that is smoky and herbal and blistering hot all at once; a rich melange of peas and fresh cheese, mellowed with cream.

Perhaps because of its connection with Standard Sweets, Rajdoot has excellent desserts. Check out the cool, spice-scented rice pudding or--best of all--the wonderfully sweet, steaming-hot carrot pudding.

Rajdoot Indian Cuisine

11833 Artesia Blvd. (at Pioneer Boulevard), Artesia, (310) 860-6500. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. (Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m.). Full bar. Lot parking. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$30.

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