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Spiced to Sell

3 chefs
Christopher Gardner

Currying Flavor: Chef Karnail Singh (left), Nashatar Singh (center) and tandoor chef Mike Singh stay true to Northern Indian culinary traditions at Samrat.

Cupertino's newest Indian dining establishment diverges from the norm with variations on tandoori favorites

By Andrew X. Pham

THERE'S NOTHING like Indian food to satiate a spice craving. At Samrat, the chefs use spices the way they did back in northern India, adeptly and unabashedly.

Springing up between Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream and McDonald's, Samrat positions itself a notch above the neighborhood diner genre, dressing itself with uniformed waiters, cardinal-red velour upholstery and plenty of stemware. However, one senses that, like any new enterprise with many conflicting details, it is still in its settling phase. A mini-bar banks a modest buffet island surrounded by gray carpet. Glass tops imprison table linen. Party streamers contend with a collection of framed Indian prints. Even the service seems at once both formal and casual.

In the menu, Samrat differentiates itself from the norm by producing variations on proven tandoori favorites (though it may do well to offer more uncommon fare). On the whole, the food is good, the service attentive, everything adequate but for the light, the vitality-sapping fluorescent light. Office-building illumination schemes do no service for culinary aesthetics, not to mention the diner's state of mind.

For a starter, we elected to follow our server's suggestion: bengan pakora ($3.95). The eggplant discs, dipped in a paprika batter, deep-fried and served on cushions of iceberg lettuce, raised scant cheers with their oily, bready armor. Fortunately, the mint chutney, tangy and practically hot with mint, rescues this appetizer.

chef
The best naan, Indian flat breads, are always from tandoori kitchens that bake to order and serve instantly. Samrat's kabuli naan ($2.95), thin and lightly brown, blisters with folds of a festive pink-dyed filling of grated coconut and ground nuts. Here, the staff speeds the naan, scorching hot from the oven, directly to the table. For those who prefer rice to naan, the kitchen steams top-quality pulao ($2.95), basmati and peas.

As in many Indian restaurants, Samrat relies heavily on its tandoori oven. So it came as no surprise that from this vase-like contraption emerges a wide array of skewered meats.

The quail rises to the top of the tandoori roasts. A trio of large, succulent quail fizzes juicily on a cast-iron serving dish, taut flesh opened in ribbons of saffron embedded so thoroughly that the quail might well have been fed on the precious spice. A light salt rub stays on the meat and blends well with the charred edges, the slight bitter nubs of the petite drumsticks. The meat, perfectly roasted, falls off in slivers, moist with spices. Curls of steam lift the herbal fragrance up from the quail, the pungency suggesting that an oaky and fruity red vintage (not available at Samrat) might be a better companion than a Taj Mahal beer ($3.50), tagged with an obtrusive aftertaste. A King Fisher beer ($3.50) pairs with such a meal more gently, especially with the other honorable mention on the red-meat menu, the lamb chops in papaya yogurt marinade ($14.95).

The prawn pasanda ($11.95) logs the most intriguing flavor with its yogurt-cream sauce. Cooked separately, the giant prawns stand apart from everything else in both texture and flavor. The complexity of the yogurt curry registers on the senses in separate stages. First, the aroma is spicy and slightly fishy (somewhat unpleasant); however, on the first brush with the palate, the scent fades and the buttery, sweet fire of curry takes over. And the taste lingering after the bite seems sweet and redolent with spices (quite a sense-teaser with saffron basmati).

Vegetarians may have an affordable feast here with 11 choices averaging just over $7, each featuring spinach, mushrooms, lentils, garbanzo beans, eggplant, okra, peas and cauliflower. Since okra is in season, we opted for the okra masala ($7.95), which, although good, lacks finesse (overcooked) and qualifies only as a diversion.

An order of lamb biryani ($7.95) distinguishes itself with distinct curry and plenty of meat; however, the twice-too-large cubes of lamb counter the pillowy rice with an unfortunate firmness that separates rather than contrasts and amplifies the components. The curried basmati, presented in an ornate bronze bowl, redeems this fault with its highlights of golden raisins, cilantro, paprika, cashews and almonds.

Desserts feature the usual choices: kufi (Indian ice cream made with condensed milk), fried cheese in syrup, and rice pudding. Wanting something more than the usual, we opted for cups of chai, but they showed up weak in cardamom.

Samrat has some rough spots, but it also has enough desire and plenty of talent in the kitchen to make a lasting impression.


Samrat

Cuisine: Northern Indian
Menu: $7­$22
Hours: Lunch Mon.­Fri., 11:30am­2pm; Dinner Mon.­Sun., 5:30­9:30pm
Address: 20956 Homestead Road, Cupertino
Phone: 408/777-8198


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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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