The world's best mashed potatoes, it says here; bold words for an Indian menu. In fact, they are very good, mashed with butter, onion and cilantro.
The menu doesn't tell you these potatoes are authentically Bengali--I've had the very same dish on the Bay of Bengal. It's astonishing to find this little-known cuisine in Los Angeles, where Indian restaurant food is so samely.
It turns out that Rita Taskina Huda, chef-owner of Gate of India in Santa Monica, comes from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. More significantly, she is an avid, experimental cook. She adds kafir lime leaves, a Thai ingredient not used in India, to a lemon curry to produce an entrancingly perfumed dish. For achaar, a sweet-sour sauce that goes as well with potatoes as with fish, Huda blends a Bengali spice mixture called panch phoron from mustard, fenugreek, fennel, kalonji, cumin and chiles, just as she makes her own curry mixtures.
She finishes off tandoori dishes with a dash of cilantro and chat masala, a mix of roasted spices that contains the pungent Indian black salt. And she makes a nontraditional naan bread sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. Her Kashmiri naan, stuffed with nuts, dried fruit and coconut, is as sweet as a pastry.
By the way, there is no tandoor oven here; the meats and naans are cooked in a pizza oven. This was Huda's solution when her clay oven couldn't handle the demand for tandoori dishes and there was no space to install another.
Huda uses a lot of sugar and oil, giving a rich, lush quality to her dishes. Her lamb korma will make you think you're dining in a Mogul court. The lavish sauce contains cream, saffron, almonds, raisins and rose water along with ginger, garlic and curry spices. Lamb rezalla is similar, but fired up with serrano chiles.
For those who object to the oiliness of Indian food, Huda makes oil-free dishes sauteed with a mixed vegetable puree. However, they lack the full flavor she likes, so if you don't mind, she'll enrich them with coconut milk.
Coconut milk is a major player in a dish called shrimp in coconut malai curry, a sweet, unctuous concoction that tastes like something you might expect in Malaysia rather than in India.
On the other hand, ginger chicken, one of the "tandoori" dishes, tastes as close to New Delhi as possible, an Indian friend says. The chicken is marinated for 24 hours with ginger root, garlic, yogurt, vinegar, sugar and spices, then roasted in the pizza oven. Huda tenderizes this, and all her meats, with green papaya puree, an age-old technique in India, she says. With the chicken I like saag paneer, spinach leaves and Indian cheese in a creamy sauce.
Dinner starts with chutneys and pappadums. Huda's tamarind chutney is a heady mixture of roasted spices and tamarind and, would you believe, catsup. Along with chat masala, it seasons the popular Bombay snack bhel puri; in her interpretation, sev (crisp vermicelli of garbanzo flour), garbanzos, cubed potatoes, onions, tomatoes and cilantro. It makes a fine, if filling, appetizer.
It's wise to be explicit about how much chile you can handle. What Huda called medium was several decibels above what I expected. Green chile bhuna, a Bengali dish of serrano chiles in spicy mustard masala, was way beyond my scope.
This is a stylish restaurant, by the way. It looks like a Mogul wedding tent, the ceiling draped with burgundy-and-gold-striped fabric and the chair backs covered with fabric cut from red and gold wedding saris. Some of the paintings on the walls are Huda's own handiwork.
Your food comes in a miniature karahi, the Indian pan that resembles a deep wok. These are set over candles so the food remains hot until you are finished--a nice touch, as clammy curries are not very palatable.
The restaurant has a few desserts, such as rice pudding and mango ice cream, and a small wine list. A Joseph Phelps Gewurztraminer turned out to be a good choice with this rich food.
Huda, who has lived in the Middle East, includes a few un-Indian dishes such as hummus. However, she imposes her own style on them--her hummus is flavored with Indian spices, topped with chat masala and olive oil and garnished with tomato slices and cilantro. She also makes a naan seasoned with the Middle Eastern spice blend called zaatar.
So it's not surprising that you can end dinner here with either Indian chai (spiced tea) . . . or Turkish coffee.
Gate of India, 115 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 656-1664. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.. All major credit cards. Wine and beer only. Take out. Free parking with validation in a lot opening off Ocean Avenue, around the corner. (The area is crowded and parking can be difficult, especially on weekends.) Dinner for two, food only, $28 to $50.
What to get: Bhel puri, lemon curry, ginger chicken, lamb korma, saag paneer, mashed potatoes.