RESTAURANT REVIEW : Rich Tastes of Punjab Come to Westlake : India House does its best preparing chicken and meat in the searing tandoor. But attention to detail would help other dishes.


India is a nation in which history is evident at the table. The Moguls, a sect of royal Persians, swept across and conquered the north of India in the 18th Century. Besides leaving a legacy of magnificent architecture, they also left their indelible stamp on the cuisine of that region.

They grew wheat, allowing bread to supplement rice as a staple. And while Mogul cooking evolved into rich dishes reliant on butter, cream, fruits and nuts, it also utilized an astounding Middle Eastern clay oven. Particularly in the province of Punjab, this tandoor oven produced an array of meats, fish, vegetables and breads--all flavored by the oven’s wood smoke.

I became interested in dining at India House, located in the lovely Water Court in Westlake, when I learned that its owner-chef, Jag Sandhu, is from Punjab. This province has the same reputation for fine cooking in India as the area around Lyon has in France.


After visiting India House on a number of occasions, I discovered that the food can either be excellent or less than ordinary, depending on whether Sandhu and staff are paying attention to details.

The small 9-year-old restaurant has walls covered with arch-shaped mirrors and Indian paintings, tall, carved chairs and soothing Indian music. Don’t even think about dining here if you’re in a rush--the service can be leisurely on occasion and maddeningly slow at other times.

Mind you, I’m grateful that the food here is cooked to order as opposed to it sitting ready-made and long-suffering in a steam table. A good technique to slow down my internal time-clock is ordering an icy Kingfisher beer and then leaning back and listening to the strains of the sitar.

Among the appetizers, I like the greaseless deep-fried cubes of home-made cheese curds ($3.95) as well as light fried pastries filled with ground lamb ($3.95). The same pastries with potatoes and peas ($2.95) are too dry despite a pleasant mango chutney dip.

Some of the tandoori items are real winners. The oniony minced lamb kabobs ($7.95) is redolent of cumin, and the succulent red-spiced chicken tandoori ($6.95) is served with ringlets of grilled onions and lemon wedges.

Obeying a waiter’s recommendation, I was disappointed with chicken tikka ($7.95), broiled chunks of chicken that lack the flavor and juiciness of the whole pieces of chicken tandoori. Jumbo shrimp ($13.25) are too delicate to withstand the searing heat of the tandoor and are therefore listless and overcooked.


All of the other entrees can be prepared mild, medium or hot; I suggest going the medium route so the subtle flavors of the hand-ground spices aren’t annihilated by the chiles.

In the chicken category, I’m fond of the creamy chicken Korma ($8.50), with its rich turmeric-flecked yogurt sauce, and the chicken Saag ($8.95) in a sublime sauce that tastes like creamed spinach. Also worth trying is the chicken Vindaloo ($8.95) with a biting vinegar-based tomato sauce.

The standouts in the meat category are the lamb Rogan Josh ($9.95) in which juicy cuts of lamb are cooked in a smooth yogurt sauce filled with crunchy almonds, and the beef kabob ($8.95), tandoori-seared minced beef served in a sprightly tomato and onion sauce.

Shrimp Masala ($12.95) is served in a tasty spice- and garlic-filled sauce while the shrimp Saag ($12.95) consists of the seafood in spinach sauce spiked with ginger.

With one exception, the chef’s vegetarian curries are all superb. I’m tantalized by the cheese curds in a pea and lentil sauce ($5.95), smoky eggplant ($6.95) mashed with onions and herbs, cauliflower and potato curry ($5.95) and delicately spiced lentils ($5.95).

My personal favorite is the dry cooked okra ($6.95) with sauteed onions; for once, this much maligned vegetable is crisp, flavorful and not slimy. But I cannot recommend the mixed vegetables ($6.95) despite a tangy sauce of raisins and almonds: The chef should be ashamed to serve a mixture reminiscent of childhood green beans, carrots and corn fresh from the freezer.


Excellent accompaniments include saffron rice with peas and sauteed onions ($3.50) and crisp tandoori-cooked breads such as the fragrant garlic or fresh onion nan ($2.50 each). I especially love the whole wheat paratha bread stuffed with spicy potatoes ($2.95).

I usually find Indian desserts to be too sweet for my taste, which makes me grateful for the chef’s barely sweet milk balls in rose syrup ($2.95).

And the best way for me to end my meal here is to order a pot of the spiced hot tea with milk ($1.75), which fills my mouth with ginger . . . and makes me fantasize about visiting the Taj Mahal.


* WHAT: India House.

* WHEN: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, dinner 5:30 to 9:30 Tuesday through Sunday.

* WHERE: 860 Hampshire Road, Suite U in the Water Court, Westlake.

* HOW MUCH: Meal for two, food only $20 to $46.

* CALL: 373-6266.

* ETC: Major credit cards accepted; beer and wine.