Our best Indian restaurants--the Westside's Bombay Cafe and Mayur in Corona del Mar, to name two--are characterized by clean-tasting, full-flavored dishes that soar mostly because of individual spice mixtures called masalas . Less accomplished kitchens, that is the majority of local Indian restaurants, offer a pat menu of northern Indian fare characterized by a depressing sameness with regard to spicing.
Given these criteria, Encino's Taj Mahal makes it, with room to spare, onto the "A" list. The restaurant is a sparkling clean, ultramodern space on the second floor of a boulevard mini-mall. Colored a robin's egg blue, it features an all-glass facade, hardly typical for the genre. But once the scents of ginger, sizzling onions and cumin waft over to your table, there is no mistaking Taj Mahal for a ladies tearoom.
A young couple named Singh are the owners, and they personally provide service I'd call unusually solicitous. Mr. Singh, who takes your order, comes by half a dozen times during the meal to ask you if everything is all right. Mrs. Singh, often the food server, stops by nearly as often to refill your plate with food from the metal serving dishes.
Like nearly all Indian restaurants in Southern California, Taj Mahal serves a buffet lunch. This one is an extraordinary value for both its quality and variety: samosas , half a dozen hot dishes, tandoori chicken, steaming naan fresh out of the clay oven, several salads, three chutneys, a cooling raita (a mixture of mint, yogurt and chopped cucumber) and dessert--all for $5.95.
The lunch is a good way to acquaint yourself with Taj Mahal's cooking, but it does have limits. For one thing, when a dish is cooked to order in an Indian restaurant, the customer gets to specify the degree of hotness, which is not an option at a buffet. And lunch is not the format to encounter the kitchen's star dishes, which at Taj Mahal means mango corn soup, terrific vegetable pakoras , tandoori rack of lamb and a fine fish curry made with fresh sea bass.
Fried calamari in a three-flour (wheat, lentil and garbanzo bean) batter isn't a bad idea, but mixed vegetable pakoras is a much better one. The dish consists of six dense, golf ball-shaped puffs made of pure garbanzo flour mixed with pieces of cauliflower, onion and potato. In many Indian restaurants, pakoras come sodden with oil; these are lightly fried, virtually greaseless, and particularly delightful when eaten with the house hot sauce, served on request.
Normally I eschew soups at Indian restaurants, since they most often resemble watered-down versions of the same sauces used to flavor stews. It's different here. The unusual mango corn soup has a distinctive south Indian cast, a bowl of mildly sweet corn in a light, mango-flavored broth. I'm also a fan of the spinach tomato soup, a homey, richly satisfying soup with more than a little zip. Paired with a simple bread such as paratha , unleavened whole wheat bread brushed with butter, it makes a fine late-night supper.
Naturally there is tandoor , meats roasted in a cylindrical clay oven, at temperatures reaching upward of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The best of them is rack of lamb, four thick lamb chops crusted with tandoori spices and served atop sizzling, almost blackened onions. The chops manage to be charred on the outside but pink at the center, a trick you won't see in many Indian restaurants. Tangari kebab is another good choice, chicken legs marinated in yogurt and ginger, topped with a moss-green mint sauce.
A few of the menu's meat dishes run together. Rara meat is supposed to be dry spiced lamb (from rara, the Punjabi word for dry) but turns out to be a lamb stew not significantly different from the menu's lamb curry. Chicken coconut curry sounds enticing, but the brown sauce, although tasty, is more generic than exotic, and the taste of coconut is not immediately obvious.
But there is definitely more innovation here than found in much of the competition. Kashmiri chicken is made with cream, raisins, coconuts and dates. Taj special naan is a hot bread lined with diced chicken, crushed nuts and green peppers. The first-rate fish curry has large chunks of sea bass in a tomato-based sauce with grace notes of ginger, garlic and what I'm guessing is coriander.
Finish a meal with rasmalai, a Bengali dessert created far from the Singhs' home province, Punjab. Rasmalai is a creamy patty of boiled cheese curd topped with saffron and pistachios. It sits in a thick liquid made by slowly boiling down milk and sugar, an "A" list dessert all the way.
WHERE AND WHEN
Location: Taj Mahal, 17815 Ventura Blvd., Encino.
Suggested Dishes: Spinach tomato soup, $2.95; mixed vegetable pakoras , $2.50; rack of lamb, $13.95; fish curry, $9.95.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Self parking in structure. Beer and wine only.
Price: American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $26 to $42.
Call: (818) 345-2244.