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Impressive Lineup From North India : Expect savory meats, fragrant rice and exotic desserts at Mahatma.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s been a long road to Chatsworth for Karam Sood. It led from northwestern India by way of Finland, where he was a restaurateur for 17 years. He’s been in the Valley for five; I first sampled his wares awhile back at a Canoga Park restaurant named Mother India and was duly impressed. Now the man has surfaced once again as proprietor of Mahatma.

There’s nothing immediately distinctive about Mahatma. The dining room, somewhat somber during the day, is quiet and softly lit in the evening. The booths are a bit squishy; service tends to be the opposite--rather starched and formal. The 77-item menu is full of traditional North Indian dishes.

The first clue that you’re going to eat well here comes from the fresh mint and tamarind chutneys already on the table when you arrive.

The waiter will bring out a complimentary basket of the crisp lentil wafers called pappadums; they’re rather spicy, with a lingering burn, which the cool chutneys smother ever so gently.

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The rust-colored tamarind chutney is exotically sweet and sour. The mint chutney has the texture of baby food but its peppery bite is definitely for grown-ups.

Then you can choose from a few appetizers, which whet the palate nicely. Aloo chat, a lively North Indian snack dish, is cubed potatoes and mashed peas tossed with cumin, coriander and lots of lemon juice. The samosas have a pea and potato stuffing, and the house chutneys complement them nicely.

To follow, you might order one of the kebabs cooked in a tandoor oven. They’re all top-notch, even if the portions tend to be a bit stingy. The fish tikka is appropriately crusty chunks of mahi mahi.

There is an excellent boti kebab--tender, boneless cubed lamb--and an even better chicken tikka, redolent of ginger and garlic, unusual in that the chicken breast is cut into strips, rather than chunks. The tandoori prawns are fine big ones, marinated in lime juice for 24 hours before cooking.

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There are dozens of other excellent entrees. The kitchen is shy about how much hot pepper to use, though. We asked for dishes spiced hot, but by Indian standards they were on the mild side of medium.

That said, chicken tikka masala is about as good as Indian food gets. It’s boneless, skinless white meat cooked in the tandoor and smothered in a grainy, yogurt-based curry sauce. Saag gosht is pieces of lamb in a rich spinach puree, literally dripping butter.

Some of the vegetable dishes (shakahari in Punjabi) are heavy, complex curries, others are cooked bhuna style, as what is known as a dry curry. Bhindi masala is a good example of a bhuna curry: okra sauteed with onions, tomatoes and spices.

Starch dishes are a strong point at Mahatma. Sood makes faultless flat breads in the tandoor oven. A buttery garlic naan would be delicious with any of the tandoori meats. The humble unleavened whole wheat bread called roti is the same as Mahatma Gandhi himself ate every day at his ashram.

Most entrees come with perfectly cooked sides of fragrant basmati rice, and you also can get an excellent entree called biryani: basmati cooked with butter, spices and a choice of chicken, lamb or mixed vegetables.

The chef makes all his own Indian desserts and ice creams. His addictive gajar halwa is a sort of rich pudding made from carrots, cheese, nuts and raisins.

Twice I was hoping to try his rasmalai (soft patties of incredibly condensed milk, garnished with pistachios), but he’d run out. I’d grab it if I ever found it available, on the basis of how good his other desserts are.

There’s the kulfi, for instance: four creamy, pale yellow discs of almond pistachio ice milk scented subtly with saffron and rose water. It’s easily the best version of this dessert in the Valley.

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BE THERE

Mahatma, 10110 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth; (818) 407-8898. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. daily. Beer and wine only. Street parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $22-$40.


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