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Where the Chutneys Sing

At Mogul, the curse of the local Indian menu is broken

It took about three minutes to realize that the drive to Clear Lake City had been worthwhile. Certainly the surroundings at Mogul, a brand-new Indian restaurant on Bay Area Boulevard just to the east of NASA, were standard subcontinental issue: twin walls full of prismatic mirrors stretched the big, dim, low-ceilinged room to its limits; a few discreet chains of beads marked off a far row of booths. But the second the pappadums and chutneys landed on our table, any sense of deja vu evaporated.

It has been my experience that where the chutneys sing, the food will, too. These sang: the thin, sienna-hued tamarind version vibrated with round, sweet-sour tones; the green one practically raced up and down the scales, all explosively fresh herbs and vinegary green-chile after bite. In such a context, even the wafery, lentil-flour pappadums took on an unaccustomed glamour. This wasn't mere chips-and-salsa filler; this was an event.

So was much of what followed at this unusually interesting restaurant, where the curse of local Indian menus -- most of which seem locked into the same interminable 30 dishes -- does not apply. I'd travel twice as far for a taste of Mogul's okra, or their green beans with coconut, both of which are double-stir-fried to give them a wonderfully browned, almost roasted character.

The baby okra pods never touch water, so they never get slimy; dusted with tart mango powder and threaded with crisply caramelized onion strings, they could persuade the most resolute okraphobe. And the finely French-cut green beans, fried up foogath-style with onion and aromatic seeds and unsweetened coconut shavings, exhibit a sophisticated play of resilient, chewy textures and a controlled chile edge. Green beans and okra alike flirt with the oversalting that tends to plague Indian kitchens -- then skate away home free.

From classy breads to break-the-mold vegetables to velvety sauces that refuse to weep the usual rivulets of oil, there's so much to like at Mogul that the generally disappointing tandoori items hardly seem to matter. Diners who are set on clay-oven meats will find the restaurant's boneless chicken (Murgh Nawabi) and spicy ground-lamb cylinders (Sheekh Kabab Mughlai) good representatives of the genre; and the thin, puffy naan that accompanies them is flatbread of a high order, light and chewy-tender rather than stodgy and coated with ash. But the lamb chunks (Boti Kabab) and basic tandoori chicken were too dry when I sampled them, and the tandoori shrimp were as dismal as I have come to expect them to be.

The sauced dishes are another matter entirely -- graceful, authoritative, nicely differentiated. And, on occasion, unexpected. Elongated lamb meatballs called Nargisi Kofta, which are named after the narcissus flower in honor of their hard-boiled egg and lentil stuffing, swim in a suave cream as rich and golden as saffron. Invitingly tender goat curry, still on the bone, wears an opulent brown gravy whose red-chili warmth is countered by the gentle sweetness of cinnamon and clove -- spices characteristic of the Mogul kitchen since the Turk-Mongol shahs set up shop in Delhi in the l6th century.

Chicken braised in the deep Indian wok, the kadai (Kadai Murgh Aurangzeb), emerges in a lavish, red-brown sea that bursts with deep, earthy flavors and red-chile heat. Think you're bored with chicken curries? Try this. Don't try the shrimp braised in yogurt, jalapenos and coconut, though; appealing as it sounds, it turns out to be a quite ordinary affair in a creamy tomato gravy, ruined by soft, iodiney shrimp and without a discernible taste of coconut. Not that I was surprised: with the sole exception of Mickey Kapoor's grilled shrimp at the Khyber, I have never met an Indian restaurant shrimp dish that I liked. Down so close to the bay, though, with everything else so good, I did have hopes.

If you're ordering the dry-cooked okra or green beans, Mogul's lovely creamed mushrooms (Khumb Hara Dhania) are a natural to go along. Northern Indians in the Himalayan foothills dote on wild mushrooms, but such dishes rarely make their way to American Indian restaurants. Mogul makes do with domesticated button mushrooms, which turn silky in a subtle, sunny-colored sauce smoothed with cream and goosed with fresh cilantro. Beneath it all hovers a low-key chile warmth. Providing a perfect counterpoint to this and all the other sauced dishes is Mogul's molded rice, beautifully garnished with well-browned onions strings, raisins and cashews. (On nights when the onion strings are missing in action, this simple pilaf still beats the garden-variety "peas pullao" that most Northern Indian restaurants dish out.)

More familiar dishes such as sag paneer (the comforting classic of creamed spinach with fresh-pressed white cheese) and lentils are nicely done here -- although I wish the gentle, fresh-tasting Mogul's dal, yellow lentils livened with tomato and cilantro, were less porridgey, better defined. Among the appetizers, addictive little logs of browned mashed potato stuffed with ground lamb stand out. A couple of these potato keema kebabs plus either of Mogul's chutneys equals a good time. So do the mini samosas filled with spiced potatoes and peas, their crusts far more fragile and flaky than most. Only the cauliflower fritters (pakoras) fell short in the first-course department, victims to a thickish batter that turned pasty when fried.

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