Indian food takes taste buds on a roller coaster ride of flavor
Daily Breeze; Torrance; Feb 28, 2003; LSMITH;MERRILL SHINDLER;(Copyright Copley Press, Inc. Feb 28, 2003)
RESTAURANT CRITIC

I find Indian food to be a guilty pleasure. The flavors are so intense, so overwhelming in the context of California Cuisine, that before the main dishes arrive, I'm usually in total palate fatigue. I'm simply exhausted by the process of dealing with the onslaught of sensory overdose that's part of the Indian restaurant experience.

This is not to say that I don't enjoy every minute of it, and every bite. But it is to say that it leaves me in need of a Victorian fainting couch; a well-executed Indian meal makes me want to lie down.

Addi's Tandoor, which is one of the best (if not the best) Indian restaurant in the South Bay, is a case in point of how outlandishly flavorful Indian cooking can be. It sits in a space that's been home to a string of culinary oddities _ in recent years, there was a steakhouse with the mondo bizarro moniker of Stiltskins (as in Rumpel), followed by a Middle Eastern place that was notable mostly for the brightest lighting I've ever seen in a restaurant.

If Addi's had done nothing more than to improve the name and decor, it would be worthy of high praise. (And praise is deserved for the live sitar and tabla music performed Friday and Saturday nights as well.) But Addi's is also a very fine place in which to sample the sundry joys of Indian cooking... a roller coaster ride for the taste buds, from the first crispy bite of papadum through the final mouthful of mango ice cream. The place delivers.

It's been remodeled into a modern rendition of a mogul's palace, with soft lighting, Indian fabrics and paintings, a casual ease that probably took a lot of work to create. (Driving past the restaurant late one night, I could see the owner and several of the waiters working on the lighting outside the building, to make it more visible.)

The Addi after which Addi's Tandoor is named is the ebullient Addi DeCosta, who was last found at Chicken Madras on Rosecrans Avenue in Hawthorne.

He was born and raised in the former Portuguese colony of Goa and the Goan influences on the menu are found in the vindaloo dishes. (Addi is quick to explain that the "true vindaloo" comes from his homeland.) There are several vindaloos on his menu... lobster vindaloo, beef vindaloo, chicken vindaloo, aloo (potato) vindaloo, and my favorite, lamb vindaloo.

There's a synergy between the musky richness of lamb, and the howling fire of vindaloo, that makes elements a lot more intense than they might be separately.

I suspect there are elements of Goan cooking in the fiery hot mirchiwalla wings, and in the lime juice used in the yogi salad. I'm also told that coconut milk and red chilies are a big deal in Goan cooking: I could handle that.

At lunchtime, there's an all-you-can-eat buffet for $6.95 _ salad, several chutneys, rice, nan bread, two chicken dishes, three vegetables dishes and dessert; at that price a deal no matter how modestly you eat.

I should mention that as an option for vegetarians, Addi's is sublime, with a "Vegetarian" section on the menu of 19 dishes, along with another 26 meatless items scattered about the menu. It's the rare vegetarian restaurant that offers a choice of 45 dishes, and this isn't specifically a vegetarian restaurant. Indeed, what they do with lamb, chicken and beef here is quite admirable. Tasty, too.

Like Thai cooking, the appetizers served at Indian restaurants can be so satisfying that the bigger dishes that follow often turn into a preview of lunch (and dinner) the next day. The spicy chicken wings served here put the Buffalo variation to shame _ there's more meat on these wings than you find on most Buffalos, and more spice as well. (The bars of Buffalo New York may know their beer, but when it comes to spice they lack what might be called refinement.)

There are all the usual samosas and pakoras, more crisp than usual, more carefully stuffed then usual _ the Bombay aloo pakoras are filled with a potato mix that could easily replace garlicked mashed spuds as my side dish of choice. And as a treat, there's a small complimentary side of marinated carrots so good, I always beg for seconds; carrots are not legally supposed to taste this good.

There's a craft to the making of Indian breads, which at Addi's has been raised to an art form. The breads begin with nan _ basic, buttery, with a mild hint of char from the tandoori oven. From there, the theme expands _ nan flavored with cheese (Indian quesadilla), with garlic (Indian garlic bread), with cherries and nuts (Indian fruitcake), with onions, with fenugreek herb, with chicken and cheese (Indian empanada), with potato (Indian knish) and more.

There's wisdom in describing to Addi what level of spice you're able to tolerate, for his kitchen can crank up the volume to astounding levels. (Addi's Tandoor reminds me, in a way, of the old Bombay Duck restaurant, where it was considered to be a challenge to consume dishes of astonishing fierceness. To eat at the Bombay Duck was to confront the limits of your masculinity.) If you want your food prepared mild, they can do it here. But if you want serious heat added, they understand the subtleties of the-fire-that-will- not-go-out.

Consider, for instance, the side dish of masala fried chilies. It's a plate of long, thin green Serrano chilies, each of which has been lightly fried in a smattering of Indian spices. They look so modest, so ineffectual. Halfway through the first one I felt a hint of panic... the iced tea I was drinking with the chilies wasn't going to be much help in terms of turning down the fire. I got through two of them, before I was breathing heavy.

It was a pleasurable pain for me, but eating chilies simply as chilies did push the limits. It also made it a little tough to determine just how hot the vegetable dish of potatoes cooked with cumin and Serrano chilies really was; after eating the chilies by themselves, I couldn't taste much of anything for awhile. I needed raita badly... only yogurt (with cucumber and tomatoes) really banks the flame.

To further smooth things out, I worked my way through the more herbaceous flavors of the rogan josh (a lamb curry from Kashmir that's very good at settling one's mouth), the wonderful grilled seabass (served with charbroiled eggplant) and the chicken makhani (flavored with ginger and tomato).

In the world of Indian eating, as in Chinese, the meal is really the rice, which is in turn flavored with the sundry curries and stews; think of them as oversized condiments.

In the end, there's carrot pudding (gajjar ka halwa), rice pudding (kheer), mango ice cream (kulfi), cheese dumplings flavored with rosewater and honey (gulab jamun), and the house ice cream of orange and mixed nuts. None of the desserts are made with chilies... there are limits. r Merrill Shindler talks about restaurants from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on KLSX-FM 97.1.

REVIEW

Addi's Tandoor * * * 525 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, 310-540-1616. Indian. Lunch and dinner, every day. Full bar. Convenient parking. Reservations important. Appetizers, $1.75- $4.95. Entrees, $4.95-$14.95. Cards: MC, V.

Good Choices: Garlic nan...........$2.25 Kabuli nan...........$2.95 Chicken nan..........$3.25 Bombay Aloo Pakoras...$3.25 Mirchiwalla Wings.....$4.95 Vegetable Bhurjee.....$4.95 Mixed Tandoori Plate..$13.95 Swordfish Tikka.......$12.95 Chicken Katakat.......$9.95 Chicken Makhani.......$9.95 Lamb Vindaloo.........$9.95 Prawn Kanyakumari.....$11.95 Chicken Tikka Methi...$10.95 Masala Fried Chilies...$1.25