This Duck Is Gently Pioneering

It was only a matter of time before nouvelle Indian cooking surfaced in Orange County. For a couple of years, places up north such as Bombay Cafe and East India Grill have been monkeying with Indian recipes to lure back L.A. diners who have grown tired of the old Mughlai/Punjabi dishes. We can thank our stars that Praveen Bansal of Irvine's Clay Oven has at last given us Bombay Duck.

Now, Bombay Duck may sound like the name of a Merchant-Ivory film, but properly speaking, Bombay duck is an oily, bony and frankly uninteresting Indian flat fish (the "duck" name is a wheeze from the days of the Raj). Don't worry, it's not on the menu at Bansal's new restaurant. What you do find on the menu at Bombay Duck may surprise you, though: crab, mango, salmon and mussels, mostly in undreamed-of incarnations.

At first glance, of course, the major surprise is finding a restaurant like this at all in downtown Laguna Beach. But the fact is, ever since Five Feet got cute with traditional Chinese dishes, Laguna has slowly evolved into our most interesting restaurant destination. David Wilhelm's Kachina virtually redefined the way we think about the Southwest, the bizarre Cafe Zoolu turned heads and now comes this place--a more gentle pioneer, perhaps, but nonetheless a bold one.

Like many Laguna restaurants, Bombay Duck is the size of a small art gallery (which it once was). The walls are a soft, relaxing salmon shade, providing an ideal contrast for the original watercolors they display, all on Indian themes and--not inappropriate, considering the building's past--all for sale.

At lunch, the restaurant has a casual look, thanks to the inlaid marble cafe tables and an abundance of light streaming in through the ceiling-height glass doors. Dinner is more genteel. The marble tables are covered with white cloth, and the haunting ragas in the background are not drowned out by daytime street noises.

Bansal's menu has touches of madness and minimalism to go along with a fair amount of tradition. Much of the creativity is confined to the appetizer, soup and salad page of the menu, but what other local Indian restaurant would be hip enough to serve a Bombay Bellini--champagne mingled with fresh mango puree? And you know what? It's terrific.

Mango corn soup is probably the standout appetizer, a thick, chunky potage where the subtle sweetness of the corn is actually muted by the exotic essence of mango. By contrast, baigan tamatar is minimalist in the extreme. In this dish, slices of grilled Japanese eggplant (rare in Indian restaurants) are topped with a thin layer of tomato chutney and a dollop of sour cream, resulting in a beautiful, elegant appetizer.

But chooza khandari strikes me as a bit mad. Imagine a lunch counter-style stuffed cantaloupe half. Now, substitute chicken in a yogurt pomegranate sauce for the tuna salad.

And crab idli is the least interesting appetizer. Idlis are little South Indian flying saucers of finely ground rice and bean flour, steamed into a dense cake. This one has crab thrown into the mixture, but not really enough to taste; it's strangely lifeless. Perhaps if it were served with idli's usual partner, a tamarind lentil broth called sambar , it would make more of an impression.

At lunch time, you can have something called Bombay roll, suspiciously like the "frankies" popularized by West L.A.'s Bombay Cafe. Call this the Indian version of a Greek gyro sandwich. It's your choice of fish, eggplant, cubed lamb or chicken with yogurt dressing and plenty of onions, rolled up in naan bread.

I tried one and found it good but hard to handle (the lamb kept falling out). You're probably better off ordering keema naan, a flat bread baked in the tandoor oven and filled with a thin layer of ground lamb. It's a sort of sandwich too, but a lot easier to eat.

Dinner is a better time for Bombay Duck's unusual seafood specialties, many of which you'll be seeing for the first time in an Indian restaurant. Geeta's fresh fish--named for the owner's wife--is spinach-wrapped salmon, of all things, cooked over hot coals in a banana leaf. Salmon may not actually exist in India, but hey, this dish is great.

Among other seafood specialties are scallops in a fresh herb sauce and orange roughy in a saffron-almond sauce borrowed from Kashmir. There are even mussels here, in a saffron-herb broth you'd expect to find in one of the Italian restaurants down the street.

Not all this fare is unusual, though. Bansal has brought his trademark clay oven cooking along to the new restaurant. For his moist, fragrant fish tikka he uses the noble swordfish, and the tandoor oven also turns out sumptuous racks of lamb, bite-sized chicken wings and the usual minced lamb and roast whole chicken specialties.

The fresh tandoori breads are pretty hot too. In addition to the keema naan, there are garlic naan, rubbed with butter and chopped garlic, and the rather filling Gobi paratha, a round, crusty, whole wheat flat bread stuffed with spiced cauliflower.

This menu doesn't exactly abound with classic Indian stews and sauteed dishes, but there are a few, such as vindaloo. This is a long-Indianized version of a 16th-Century Portuguese stew that was flavored with vinegar and garlic, and as prepared in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, it's famously fierce with hot peppers. This one has been toned down considerably, though; you won't need a fireman.

Saagwala is another classic dish, and a favorite of mine--lamb, chicken or shrimp cooked with spinach. (We won't quibble over the fact that saag really means mustard greens in Hindi.) And among the vegetable dishes, most of which run to eggplant, cauliflower and spinach, the one I like best is bhindi masala, where okra is dry-sauteed in a terrific, complex mixture of aromatic spices.

So welcome, Bombay Duck. (I should say, Salaam, Bombay Duck.)

Bombay Duck is moderately expensive (individual dishes are inexpensive, but portions are small). Appetizers, soups and salads are $3.50 to $8.95. Breads are $1.95 to $4.25. Entrees are $8.95 to $16.95.

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition. BOMBAY DUCK

231 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach.

(714) 497-7307.

Lunch daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner daily, 5 to 11 p.m.

American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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